New study shows some kids compensate for exercise by eating more

Released: Friday, April 28, 2017

Thinking outside the box is a way of life for researchers in the Translational Research Clinic for Children (TReCC) at LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center. While our scientists spend a lot of time developing programs aimed at helping kids become more active and eat healthier, we are also working to better understand how kids think about nutrition and exercise.

Dr. Nicole Fearnbach, a postdoctoral research fellow at Pennington Biomedical who is funded by the National Institutes of Health, headed up a recent pediatric exercise study aimed at better understanding how exercise affects kids' calorie intake. She conducted the study at Penn State while a graduate student. As part of the study Fearnbach asked 9 to 12-year-old participants to complete 30 minutes of personalized exercise that accounted for their weight and individual fitness levels. Workouts were done in the morning, and then Fearnbach and her team tracked the kids' food intake behaviors over the course of the day.

"We found that even though the exercise was designed to be the same for every child, some kids thought the exercise was harder than others," described Fearnbach.

It turns out, regardless of differences in gender, age, or body size, the children who rated the exercise as more difficult ate more total calories throughout the rest of the day.

To continue to dig deeper into these findings on kids' perception of exercise, Fearnbach is now engaging the unique resources within Pennington Biomedical's TReCC as a postdoctoral researcher.

In a state where one in two children is overweight or obese, the TReCC is dedicated to research aimed at preserving and improving the health of Louisiana's children – the future workforce of the Pelican State. Unless today's children are exposed to programs that encourage them to make healthy food choices and participate in regular physical activity, many will remain at an elevated risk for chronic disease such as diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure, just to name a few.

"We think if children consider exercise fun instead of work, they might not compensate as much for the ‘work' by eating more calories," said Fearnbach. "Our challenge now is to find ways to make exercise fun for kids. One potential strategy could be for kids to try different types of exercise and pick the one that they find the easiest or most fun."

Current and future studies at Pennington Biomedical's TReCC aim to help kids find new and innovative ways to be physically active and develop habits for a healthy life.

Recent research has shown promising results for improving physical activity levels and nutrition in children: active video gaming, when combined with a gaming coach who encourages gamers and holds them accountable, can help kids adhere to a regular video game-based exercise program. Regular video game exercise can also improve confidence levels—and bone density—in girls who struggle with their weight and who might not feel comfortable on a sports team or hitting the gym. Moreover, watching their peers eat healthy vegetables on a screen can influence preschool-aged children to eat more veggies. These are just a few examples of the pioneering research completed or underway in the TReCC that Fearnbach hopes to build on.

Fearnbach is also hoping to build on the TIGER Kids research study, which is currently looking for kids to join the study. With funding from the United States Department of Agriculture, the TIGER Kids Study is aimed at evaluating ways to increase kids' physical activity, reduce sedentary time (time spent sitting), encourage healthy eating and assess other factors that may influence school performance, body image, stress and mood.

"Pennington Biomedical is truly a one-of-a-kind place when it comes to providing the resources we need as researchers to learn more about helping kids avoid chronic disease, while also providing opportunities to our community members to improve their health by participating in exercise and nutrition research studies," Fearnbach said.

Learn more about how you can join current children's health research by clicking here.

Fearnbach's initial research was conducted at the Clinical Research Center and the Children's Eating Behavior Laboratory at Penn State University. It was sponsored by the USDA/NIFA Childhood Obesity Prevention Training Program.

For more information on how you can support this and other projects at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, visit