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Friends can impact your child’s activity level

June 20, 2012

“You are who your friends are.” The phrase every parent knows, but no kid, especially teenagers, wants to hear. Parents often use this popular line as a way to encourage their pre-teen or teenager to choose friends who will set a positive example, build their character, and create healthy habits.  But recent studies have shown that this theory can even apply to kids as young as 5 years old. Young kids like to play “follow the leader” and are easily influenced by what those around them are doing, especially when it comes to physical activity (or lack thereof).

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a study by Vanderbilt University that showed the influence kids’ friends have on activity level. In the study, eighty children, ages 5 to 12, who participated in after-care programs were observed over a 12-week period. The children wore an accelerometer, a device that detected the child’s activity intensity level. The children were allowed to play with different individuals throughout the day and were asked to list the kids they associated with the most. Researchers found that the group of friends the child associated with the most heavily influenced the child’s activity levels. They also found that children are constantly adjusting their activity level to match that of their peers. However, children did not make new friends based on activity-level alone, but rather on other interests, such as age, gender, etc.

What can be learned from this study?

Well, a few things. With the failing economy, many parents have been forced to work full-time to support their family, leaving kids no other option than to stay at school after-hours at an after-care program. Many parents are leery of the impact these programs have on their kid’s health, but the Vanderbilt study gives new hope to the impact after-care programs can have on childhood obesity and the activity level among kids. Sabina Gesell, assistant professor of Pediatrics at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine and author of this study, suggested that by strategically placing obese or at-risk kids in groups that have a higher activity level, they too will likely increase their activity level, which could make a long-term impact on childhood obesity rates.

As a parent, if you are looking into an after-care program for your child, be sure to ask questions regarding the activity level of the kids in the program. Make sure the kids are getting adequate time outside to play and are involved in hands-on activity throughout the day. Ask how the staff involves the kids in outdoor play and if/what tools they use to encourage kids to stay active.

The big takeaway from this study for any parent is that it matters who your child’s friends are. Be aware of who your child spends the most time with and what their activity habits are like. If your child associates with kids who would rather sit around and play video games, try introducing your child to kids who have a higher activity level. Help facilitate increased activity among your child’s group of friends by meeting up with them at a community park or pool, going for a bike ride, or getting involved in a playgroup. While you may not be able to pick and choose your child’s friends, it is important to be aware of the environment your child is in and encourage friendships that are based on healthy activity levels.

Have you noticed that your kids tend to adopt their friend’s activity level? How do you encourage your kids to stay active?