GAINESVILLE, FL -- Group-based treatments may be an important tool for battling childhood obesity in rural communities, a study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine finds. Research conducted at the University of Florida compared weight-loss statistics for rural children in family-based or parent-only programs versus a control group that did not participate in a weight-loss plan.

Study participants in the treatment groups were instructed on healthy diet choices, and children were provided with pedometers. Parents in the parent-only group received training on topics such as nutrition, exercise and behavior management.

After six months, children in the weight-loss programs were 4 percent less overweight on average, while children in the control group were 3 percent more overweight.

"Given the scope and seriousness of obesity in America and the limited access to services for children in rural settings, there is a pressing need for programs that help rural families adopt healthy dietary habits and increase physical activity," says lead investigator David Janicke, assistant professor at the University of Florida's College of Public Health and Health Professions.

The average rate of obesity for rural children is 16 percent, compared with 14 percent for urban kids. Researchers noted that rural children have higher poverty rates and poorer access to medical care, healthful foods and physical activity facilities due to geographic barriers.

The study was among the first of its kind designed to assess the effectiveness of a child weight-management program in a real-world, community-based setting for families in rural areas.

"We need to focus new energy on finding solutions to childhood obesity, not just documenting the problem," Thomas Robinson, the Irving Schulman endowed professor in child health at Stanford University, wrote in an editorial accompanying the study. "This is the most direct way to generate the high-quality data needed to establish an evidence base for effectively and efficiently managing pediatric obesity."