Very few kids get the amount of physical activity they need every day, but a new study from Canada finds that parental support may be the key to getting kids moving.
“Currently less than 10 percent of children accumulate the recommended 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (approximately equivalent to 13,500 steps per day) at least six days per week,” Kerry Vander Ploeg told Reuters Health by email.
Vander Ploeg, who led the new study, is with the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
“We previously demonstrated that physical activity levels are lower on weekend days than on weekdays,” she said.
Low levels of physical activity are concerning because insufficient physical activity is one of the greatest risk factors for overweight and obesity, Vander Ploeg said.
Vander Ploeg and colleagues sent surveys and pedometers to 1,355 Alberta fifth graders and their parents in the spring of 2009 and 2011. The parents were asked to rate how much they cared about exercising, how much they encouraged their children to be active and how often they exercised with their kids.
The children wore the pedometers to count their steps as a measure of their physical activity levels over a nine-day period.
In general, the daily step counts were higher on school days than on weekends and boys were more active than girls.
The kids whose parents encouraged physical activity were more active, although parents tended to encourage boys more than the girls, the researchers note in their report, published in BMC Public Health.
Parents who said they cared about physical activity were more likely to have sons and to be active on weekends, and kids were more active when their parents were active with them.
“Parents play an important role in shaping the behaviors of their children, and therefore their belief in and support for physical activity may help to increase physical activity levels among children,” Vander Ploeg said.
Parents can support children’s activity levels by encouraging their children to be active and engaging in physical activities with their children, particularly during the windows of time when children are not at school Vander Ploeg said.
“We found that increases in how much parents cared about staying fit and exercising and encouraged their children to be active, and in how often parents engaged in physical activities with their children were associated with increases in children’s physical activity, particularly on weekend days,” she said.
The study cannot prove that parents’ involvement increased the activity of their kids, but it suggests a link.
“Parents play a critical role in shaping a child’s interest and involvement in physical activity,” Gregory Welk told Reuters Health in an email.
Welk, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Iowa State University, was not involved in the new study.
Welk said parents have to take active responsibility to ensure children have opportunities to be physically active.
“Adults can make their own schedules and plan on when and where they will get physical activity in their day but children are dependent on parents. They often don’t have control over their day or their opportunities to be active,” he said.
Welk notes that parents’ role may depend on their child’s age.
“When children are young, parents can have the biggest impact by being active with their child and by providing opportunities for their child to be active,” he said. “When children are older, parents can facilitate children’s participation by signing them up for activities and by encouraging them to build some physical activity into their day.”
Although the study used pedometers to track children’s activity levels, those devices are helpful but not essential for parents who want to get their kids moving, Vander Ploeg said.
“An affordable method includes keeping an activity log or diary. To keep an activity log or diary, parents or their children record the type and the time spent participating in each daily physical activity,” Vander Ploeg said.
Parental support is important, but Welk cautions parents not to be too pushy.
“Excess pressure typically backfires when trying to promote lifestyle behaviors,” he said.
“It’s not just about signing your children up for extracurricular activities, which can be expensive; you don’t even need to be an all-star athlete yourself to have healthy, active children,” Vander Ploeg added.
“It’s important for parents, schools, and communities to create social and physical environments that support physical activity, so that children can make healthy choices and establish healthy living habits,” she said.