WASHINGTON - The U.S. economy logged slightly better growth in the first quarter, spurred by improved sales of U.S. products overseas, the government said yesterday in a report that updated an estimate announced last month.

While the change to a 0.9 percent annualized increase was heartening, the growth in the gross domestic product was still small, a sign that the country remains far from being out of the woods. The initial GDP estimate was an increased growth rate of 0.6 percent.

A closer look behind yesterday's revision for the January-to-March period revealed much caution on the part of consumers, who have been clobbered by the housing, credit and financial debacles.

"What emerges is a picture of an economy that's gasping for air," said Bernard Baumohl, managing director of the Economic Outlook Group.

Consumers - major shapers of overall activity and thus the economy's lifeblood - boosted their spending during the quarter at the slowest pace since the last recession, in 2001. And, their decreased appetite for shopping reduced sales of foreign-made imports, which also helped to narrow the trade deficit.

The GDP, which measures the value of all goods and services produced within the United States, is considered the best barometer of the nation's economic health.

Economists consider the 0.9 percent growth rate subpar. A more normal pace would be along the lines of 2.5 percent to 3 percent, they said.

The new statistics did not meet what analysts consider one definition of a recession - two straight quarters of a shrinking GDP. But that did not happen in the last recession - in 2001 - either. And, other barometers - nationwide job losses and shrinking paychecks - still point to a possible downturn, analysts said.

Another report showed more people signing up for jobless benefits in the week that ended last Saturday, a fresh sign of softness in the employment market. The Labor Department said new applications filed for unemployment insurance rose 4,000, to 372,000.