Written by P. Humbargar
Edited by A. Noelle
New research shows that friends influence how active kids are.
Childhood obesity in the United States has reached record proportions; nearly 1 in 5 children today are considered obese. Since lack of exercise is a major factor in childhood obesity, it is imperative to get kids moving. Interventions such as organized exercise programs and messages to “get moving” do not appear to have had much effect. New research, however, suggests that merely being around more active kids will increase a child’s activity level.
Research led by Sabina Gesell at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine and reported in Pediatrics found that friendships play a crucial role in setting a child’s physical activity pattern. The research showed that activity levels can be increased, decreased, or stabilized, depending on a child’s immediate circle of friends. Children in the study consistently adjusted their activity level by 10% or more to match the levels of their peers.
Gessel’s research involved studying 81 children, ages 5 to 12, in an after school program for a period of 12 weeks. The children’s physical activity was monitored with a pedometer-like device called an accelerometer. Because the children did not know each other well at the beginning of the program, researchers were able to track how they made and dropped friends and how these changing relationships affected their physical activity.
The research found that the children became more active or more sedentary, depending on the activity levels of those in their immediate social network. Gessel said that the children would mirror, emulate, or adjust to be similar to their friends.
These findings are encouraging. Simply introducing more sedentary children to more active ones in after-school programs or in day care may be an effective way to get them moving. Gessel believes the results of the study could be a much needed new tool for combating childhood obesity.
Overall, Gessel’s research is good news, though certainly not unexpected. We have always known that peer pressure is a powerful force in children’s lives. So, it only makes sense that associating with more physically active children will lead sedentary kids to be more active. But the research also seems to suggest that this type of peer pressure works both ways—physically active kids who associate with sedentary kids may become less active.
On a practical level it is yet to be seen exactly how the findings could be used on a widespread basis to combat obesity. After all, it would be unrealistic to think that parents with sedentary kids can just go around and “pick out” physically active friends for their kids; and to forbid children from having friends who are less physically active would obviously present a whole other set of problems. It will surely be interesting to see how the “experts” will attempt to implement these research findings.
For parents and other caring adults entrusted with children, a sensible way to help prevent obesity is to simply teach and encourage children to be physically active from the very beginning. And of course, to lead by example!