Friend groups may encourage kids to be more active

Kids in after-school programs often increase their own physical activity if they make friends who run and jump around more than they do, a new study from Tennessee has found.

Though not completely surprising, that finding could be important as parents, after-school teachers and camp counselors try to encourage youngsters to move more and head-off obesity before it starts, researchers said.

The results are also in line with research that’s been done in teens and adults, who tend to look like the rest of their friend group in terms of weight and fitness level.

“This is more evidence that peers and social networks do influence health behaviors,” said Dr. Pooja Tandon, a childhood obesity researcher from the University of Washington in Seattle who wasn’t involved in the new study.

“The next steps will be (understanding) how to harness the power of social networks to promote health behaviors,” such as physical activity in kids, she told Reuters Health.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University in Nashville studied 81 racially-diverse public school students, ages five to 12, who went to after-school programs at one of two different sites.

Ten-year-olds spend more time sitting on their rears and less time running around than they did at age nine, according to a new British study.

Kids mostly cut down on their physical activity during weekends, by an average of 40 minutes about 75 minutes in boys and nearly half an hour in girls. There was no significant change on weekday activity levels.

“The extent of these decreases over 1 year would have significant implications for these children if decreases continued into adulthood,” the researchers write online September 13th in Pediatrics.
“Although physical activity promotion for adults is focused mostly on increasing physical activity, efforts for youths might be better focused on reducing decreases,” they add.

To see how the kids’ friendships affected their physical activity - and vice versa - pediatrics researcher Sabina Gesell and her colleagues spent time with the students during three week-long periods over the spring of 2010.

During each visit, they asked kids individually who they were friends with in the after-school program. Then, Gesell’s team outfitted the youngsters with accelerometers - small devices that clip on to the belt and measure how active people are at any given time.

Any Exercise Benefits Kids’ Heart Health
In a recent issue in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers reported that even if kids spend the rest of their time sitting around, an hour of any physical activity a day will benefit their heart health.

Researchers demonstrated that children and teens who got more moderate to vigorous physical exercise daily than their peers had beter cholesterol levels, belood pressure and weight, which are important for long-term health.

Parents, schools and institutions should facilitate and promote physical activity of at least moderate intensity in all children and be less concerned about the total amount of time spent sedentary, at least in relation to these cardiovascular risk factors,” said study author Ulf Ekelund, group leader of the Physical Activity Epidemiology Program at the Institute of Metabolic Science in Cambridge, England.

The type of activity is not important as long as the intensity is at least equal to brisk walking, Ekelund said. Possibilities include outdoor play, bicycling, dancing, aerobics, walking and playing team sports.

However, the positive benefits of exercise don’t necessarily counteract the harmful effects of a couch-potato lifestyle, he said. “There may be specific sedentary behaviors, such as TV viewing, that impose health risks as TV viewing is linked to other unhealthy behaviors [such as snacking]. Therefore, limiting TV time is still important for children’s health and well-being,” Ekelund said.

Samantha Heller, an exercise physiologist and clinical nutrition coordinator of the Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., said that “there is absolutely no reason for our children to be fat, sedentary and at risk for cardiovascular disease.”

Exercise, in whatever form it takes, is fantastic for children and teens - and adults,” she said.

Even children who are not cut out for competitive sports, have the innate need to be physically active, Heller said.

“Parents and caregivers need to limit tech time - computers, iPads, texting, TV - and let kids be kids, running around playing,” she said.

It has often been said, “children learn through movement.” In addition to the health benefits of physical activity, movement is an integral part of the young child’s life and education, for it is through movement that children develop social, emotional, and cognitive skills. For young children, movement is a critical means of communication, expression, and learning. It is imperative that classroom teachers give children as many opportunities as possible to be physically active and to learn through movement.

A major thrust in curriculum development in schools today is the integration of subject content across the curriculum. Integration refers to the mutual relationship between subject matter. This suggests the building of relationships between all areas of study that make up the school curriculum. Integration of curriculum enhances learning by (Nichols, 1994):

- promoting understanding and reinforcing curriculum content in a variety of educational settings,
- encouraging students to transfer what is learned in one setting to new settings,
- increasing meaning of what has been learned by giving students the opportunity to see information in new relationships and to apply it in new situations, and, by
- reinforcing curriculum content by more in-depth exposure to the material.

Teachers have many opportunities to use movement and physical activity within the regular classroom curriculum. Since children are interested in movement, these relationships may spark their interest as they work in math, language arts, science, social studies, health, and other subjects.

The Importance of Movement and Physical Activity
For children, physical activity and movement enhances fitness, fosters growth and development, and helps teach them about their world. As teachers of young children, we know that most children are innately physically active. They learn as they move throughout their environment. In observing a group of young children at recess, we will most likely see them running, jumping, throwing, and kicking in this unstructured environment. It is what they do naturally…they enjoy active play! So why should we be concerned with “promoting” physical activity in children? Here’s why.

Children today find themselves more often in “sedentary alternatives” (Epstein, et al, 1995). For example, children ride in a car or bus to school, have less physical education, watch more television, play more sedentary games such as computer games, and do not have as much freedom to play outside on their own. Consequently, there is mounting evidence that even our young children are becoming less physically active and more overweight and obese. Physical inactivity has contributed to the 100% increase in the prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States since 1980 (CDC, 2000). Childhood obesity should be of major concern for a number of reasons.

- Obesity in children is a major risk factor for a number of diseases (e.g. diabetes, hypertension, elevated blood cholesterol).
- Childhood obesity tends to lead to adult obesity.
- Adults who were obese as children have increased morbidity and mortality irrespective of adult weight.
- Overweight adolescents may suffer long-term social and economic discrimination (Boreham and Riddoch, 2001).

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