December 8, 2005

Kids Exercise to Feel Good, Not Lose Weight

By Amy Norton

NEW YORK -- Children and young teens may be more likely to exercise if they're motivated by fun and fitness rather than weight concerns, a new study suggests.

In a study of 200 students (average age, 12-1/2 years) at one Pennsylvania middle school, researchers found that "personal fulfillment" was the only motivation to be active. That meant that kids tended to exercise for the sake of their health and athletic skills, and to simply feel good -- and not in order to shed pounds or to emulate their friends or parents.

The findings, according to the study authors, point to a potential way to encourage more kids to exercise: highlight the fun and fitness.

It was something of a surprise that middle-schoolers would want to exercise for the health benefits and the pure enjoyment, study co-author Katie Haverly told Reuters Health.

One might expect that young adolescent girls, in particular, would be more motivated by weight loss, noted Haverly, who was with the State University of New York at Albany at the time of the study. She is now based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But weight goals did not spur kids to exercise. In fact, personal fulfillment was the only factor that was important for all students, regardless of their weight. Even though overweight children put more value on weight loss than their thinner peers did, personal fulfillment was still a more important motivation to be active, according to findings published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Given the increasingly sedentary lifestyles U.S. children are leading, experts believe it's important to find new ways of motivating kids to get off the couch and away from the computer.

If kids are indeed motivated by health, skill-building and fun, then physical education in schools may be able to play a key role, according to Haverly. Not all kids have the athleticism or interest needed for organized sports, she pointed out, so it's important for them to have the chance to exercise in a non-competitive, health-focused way.

In addition, she noted, exposing kids to a range of activities in gym classes can help them find the ones that they enjoy and might stick with.

Haverly said she believes school administrators and government, through funding, should make physical education a greater priority.

SOURCE: Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, December 2005.