Children Tend To Be More Active When Their Moms Are Too
March 24, 2014

Children Tend To Be More Active When Their Moms Are Too

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Mothers raising a small child may want to stay active just to keep up with their toddler, but according to a new study in the journal Pediatrics active moms establish a dynamic lifestyle pattern for their children as well – a pattern that is often carried through to adulthood.

Conducted by a team of British researchers, the new study equipped both children and mothers with activity monitors. The UK team found that youngsters are not simply ‘naturally active' and that parents have a crucial part to play in the progression of healthy exercise habits early on in childhood development. The study also supplied critical information for policy makers to inform programs that encourage physical activity in families with small children. The study showed that all members of the family can reap the benefits of such efforts.

"We saw a direct, positive association between physical activity in children and their mothers – the more activity a mother did, the more active her child,” Kathryn Hesketh, a researcher at the University College London. “Although it is not possible to tell from this study whether active children were making their mothers run around after them, it is likely that activity in one of the pair influences activity in the other.”

The researchers extracted data for their study from nearly 560 mothers and their 4-year-old children who are volunteers in the Southampton Women's Survey. Started in the late 1990s, the longitudinal study is tracking women who were first surveyed in their 20s and 30s, quite a few of whom eventually gave birth. From verification of pregnancy, the program evaluates the health, growth and development of the children born to female participants.

Many of the study participants were working mothers and several of the children went to day-care facilities – variables that affected activity degrees of both groups, along with the relationship between the two. Other possible factors affecting maternal activity analyzed in the study included mothers' levels of education, if the child had siblings and if his or her father was living at home.

Instead of using diaries or other methods of self-reporting, the new study had both mothers and youngsters fitted with Actiheart monitors, essentially a combination accelerometer and heart rate monitor, for up to a week.

"We used an activity monitor that was attached to participants and worn continuously, even during sleep and water-based activity," said study author Esther van Sluijs, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge. "This approach allowed us to capture accurately both mothers' and children's physical activity levels for the whole of the measurement period, matching hour for hour maternal-child activity levels."

"For every minute of moderate-to-vigorous activity a mother engaged in, her child was more likely to engage in 10 percent more of the same level of activity,” Hesketh said. “If a mother was one hour less sedentary per day, her child may have spent 10 minutes less sedentary per day. Such small minute-by-minute differences may therefore represent a non-trivial amount of activity over the course of a week, month and year."

The researchers noted that while the mothers’ and their child’s activity level closely matched, the relationship differed by child's weight, time spent at preschool, amount of mother's education and by time of day and week.

"Our study shows that the relationship between mother and child activity is moderated by demographic and time factors – for example, for moderate-to-vigorous activity, the relationship was stronger for mothers who left school aged 16 compared to those who left aged 18 or more,” said van Sluijs. “The association also differed by time of week, with light activity, such as walking, most strongly associated at weekends than on weekdays. The opposite was observed for moderate-to-vigorous activity which was more strongly associated on weekdays.”

"There are many competing priorities for new parents and making time to be active may not always be top of the list,” said Hesketh. “However, small increases in maternal activity levels may lead to benefits for mothers and children. And if activity in mothers and children can be encouraged or incorporated into daily activities, so that more time is spent moving, activity levels are likely to increase in both. In return, this is likely to have long-term health benefits for both.”