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Friends influence children's activity levels

29th May 2012

Children's activity levels are strongly influenced by the habits of their friends, new research has found.

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Researchers in the United States found that children whose friends were physically active were six times as likely to be physically active themselves, compared with children whose friends were not.

In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers reported that activity levels among children attending after-school clubs in Nashville, Tennessee were most strongly influenced by the activity level of their closest peers.

Friends were the strongest influence on the amount of time the children spent engaged in physical activity, the research concluded.

The results come at a time when nearly one in five children in the US is obese, compared a rate of less than one in 10 just 30 years ago.

The researchers said the findings should be of importance to health policymakers trying to boost activity levels in children, because lack of exercise is a major contributor to the childhood obesity epidemic.

According to researcher Sabina Gesell of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, most obesity interventions do not work, which means that prevention strategies are the key to the problem.

She said policymakers could take children's friendship networks into consideration when planning their interventions aimed at preventing obesity in children.

Earlier studies have found that social networks are also a strong influence on the body weight of adults.

Obesity, it seems, spreads from adult friend to adult friend, according to a headline study a few years ago, although the idea is still controversial.

However, researchers have not previously examined the impact of social networks on activity levels in children.

For the purposes of the study, the activity levels of 81 mostly elementary school-aged children were measured using an accelerometer over a three-month period while they were attending after-school clubs.

They also determined the children's social networks by means of interviews.

According to Gesell, while children formed groups based on gender, race, age, and where they went to school, they were more likely to change their activity levels to match those of their friends during spare time.

However, the less active children did not have fewer friends than the more active ones.

Children became either more active or more sedentary as they emulated the behaviour of the children in their immediate network, the study said.

According to sociologist Mark Pachucki of the University of California, adult friends tend to share similar eating patterns.

He said that the view that social networks were not a form of health behaviour was now changing.

Pachucki, who is studying how social networks influence eating behaviours in children and teens, was not involved in the new study.

Drawing an analogy from sporting performance, he said that children who were less active might raise their game by hanging out with those who were more active.


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