Social Networks Affect A Child’s Physical Activity

Connie K. Ho for
A study by a team of researchers at Vanderbilt School of Medicine recently found that children who have active peers engage in more physical activity themselves. This idea of peer pressure affecting the exercise of children, influencing healthy habits, and rates of reducing obesity is published in the journal Pediatrics.
Sabina Gesell, a research assistant professor in pediatrics at Vanderbilt School of Medicine, and fellow researchers examined groups of friends in an after-school program that had children between the ages of 5 and 12. They tracked the kids´ physical activity over 12 weeks by using a device that recorded small muscle movements. The device works similarly to how a pedometer can track the number of steps a person takes.
In the beginning of the program, none of the students were familiar with one another. Researchers looked at how the children became friends with one another, some sticking with each other while others didn´t continue to be friends. The scientists studied how these changes in relationships could influence the adolescents´ level of physical activity.
In the study, the element that influenced the students´ activity or heightened their physical activity the most was the interactions that the participants had with four to six of their closest friends and the physical activity of each of these friends. The subjects would adjust their physical activity level about 10 percent to match the physical activity of their friends. As a result, students who befriended other participants who were engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity, tended to up their own physical activity levels. Those who had close relationships with people who were on the lower scale of physical activity, tended to participate in less physical activity and were sedentary themselves.
“We see evidence that the children are mirroring, emulating or adjusting to be similar to their friends,” said Gesell in a TIME article. “And that´s exciting because we saw meaningful changes in activity levels in 12 weeks.”
The findings of the program suggest that changing a child´s behavior could be as simple as connecting sedentary kids to kids who are more active. Researchers believe that the results could assist public health groups in the fight against the obesity epidemic. The next step in the project for the researchers would be to find out how much a single child with an active physical activity can influence his peers who are more sedentary.
“Such as strategy could start with a group of very active children and implement a ‘rolling enrollment’ of inactive children into the group,” the researchers wrote in the paper.
Other studies besides the one by the Vanderbilt Medical School have worked to determine the impact of social networks on habits, such as quitting smoking, or moods, like the increase of feelings of happiness or loneliness.
“This is a novel approach to obesity prevention,” continued Gesell in the TIME article. “None of the approaches to combating obesity are really working now, and we need a new approach. The social environment does carry more power than we have given it credit for, so we should leverage that intentionally.”

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