Social networks can boost physical activity

June 7, 2012

Friendships strongly influence physical activity levels among children even as young as 5 to 12 years, a new study reports. The findings may point to new ways of fighting obesity. More >>

Friendships strongly influence physical activity levels among children even as young as 5 to 12 years, a new study reports.

Studies of adolescents and adults have demonstrated an association between social networks and obesity. Children’s social networks may have as strong an influence on behavior as adolescent networks, the researchers say.

Researchers evaluated data collected at 3 points during 2 structured, 12-week afterschool programs from 81 public school students aged 5 years or older. They determined each child’s social network by private interview and recorded physical activity with Actigraph GT1M accelerometers, using proportion of time spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity as an outcome measure. They analyzed the social network and activity data longitudinally using the SIENA version 4.0 system.

Children participating in the afterschool programs consistently adjusted the time they spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity by 10% or more in imitation of their immediate circle of friends, defined as 4 to 6 other children. Age and obesity had a small effect on activity; sex of the child had no direct effect.

Activity level did not influence formation or termination of friendships. Both active and inactive children had about the same number of friends and were about as likely to be chosen as friends.

Contrary to previous research, the study did not find that children chose others of comparable weight as friends. They were more likely to gravitate toward children of similar age, school, sex, and race than activity or weight.

The researchers speculate that afterschool programs might build on the study’s findings by embedding sedentary children in groups of very active children in the hope that the inactive children would increase their activity level by forming friendships with their active peers. Such an intervention would require maintaining a large enough ratio of active to inactive children to prevent the active children from reducing their activity levels in imitation of their less active friends.

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