Based on accelerometer readings, the students spent an average of 30 percent of their free time at after-school in what the researchers counted as moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, including running around or playing active games.
Over the course of the study, Gesell and her colleagues found, kids didn’t make or break friendships based on how active they were compared to other students. For example, those who spent most of after-school running around were equally likely to befriend their active or non-active peers.
Instead, when kids made new friends who were more or less active, they tended to change their own activity level accordingly, the researchers reported Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
“Kids are constantly adjusting their activity levels to match their friends,” Gesell told Reuters Health.
That finding starts to hint at possible ways to address evidence that kids are spending more time on the couch and less time running around than in the past - and becoming overweight and obese as a result.
“If (counselors) can basically use different strategies to encourage activity even in some children, that could have a ripple effect,” said Tandon, who also wondered if similar techniques to promote exercise would work during school recess or at home.
Three quarters of children are not active enough: Government survey
The biggest survey of its kind, conducted by the Department of Health, found that children are not getting the recommended one hour of physical activity outside of school times.
Almost half of children watched TV or played non-active video games before school and only a fifth of children did something active after dinner, the Change4Life survey found.
Over 11m questionnaires were distributed through GP surgeries, letterboxes, websites and magazines. Of the 260,000 responses 72 per cent of families said their children were not getting one hour of physical activity outside of school.
The findings,. of the How Are the Kids survey, were released to coincide with a new advert to encourage activity in children.
One third of children under 16 in England are thought to be overweight or obese and this is projected to rise.
Of course, friends in the study didn’t always have a positive influence.
“Some kids’ activity levels got pulled up by their immediate friends, and others got pulled down,” Gesell told Reuters Health.
The question now, she said, is how to “leverage” that finding to encourage less-active kids to get more exercise, and not the other way around.
The research is still a few steps away from leading to changes in how after-school programs are run in the real world, Gesell said. But in the future, counselors could shake up sedentary friend groups and encourage a couple of less-active kids to join those that go straight to the gym or the playground, she added.
Dawn Primarolo, Minister for Public Health said: “Our survey shows that kids just aren’t getting up and about as much as they should. If we’re going to cut obesity levels our children need to be active for at least 60 minutes a day.”
“Families up and down the country are getting tailor made action plans from Change4Life, and our new ads will give additional encouragement to help families feel the difference.”
“By eating better and moving more, we can all live longer and healthier lives. With continued support from Change4Life this can be a reality for every family in England.”
“The after-school programs have had this long history of keeping kids safe and keeping them off the street,” Gesell said. “Now the thought is, what if we use this ideal arena to improve health?”
SOURCE: Pediatrics, online May 28, 2012