When my friends boast about doing an ungodly 6 a.m. spin class or eating quinoa for dinner, I can’t help but feel lousy about the 17 french fries I stole off my child’s plate earlier in the day. My friends are mostly an active bunch and, not surprisingly, they motivate me to get off my ass and do the same. Turns out it’s the same way with kids.
A new study shows that children are more physically active when they have friends who exercise. Researchers looked at 81 racially diverse public school students involved in after-school programs over a 12-week period. They asked them the names of their friends, and also had them wear accelerometers (a device that measures physical activity) during playtime.
The end result? Children adjusted their activity levels to match those of their friends during the 12-week period. Those who hung out with more active kids were more likely to increase their physical activity levels, while those befriended more sedentary children became less active.
“Friendship ties may play a critical role in setting physical activity patterns in children as young as 5 to 12 years,” said study co-author Sabina Gesell of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. “We see evidence that the children are mirroring, emulating or adjusting to be similar to their friends. And that’s exciting because we saw meaningful changes in activity levels in 12 weeks.”
What’s exciting about these findings is that they can be used to help fight obesity in children. ”This is a novel approach to obesity prevention,” Gesell told TIME magazine. ”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.”