Peer Pressure and Pedometers: Encouraging Physical Activity in Children

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Peers can encourage activity. Image by shawnzrossi.

Children on both sides of the United States and Canadian border are becoming less physically fit.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. reports that in 1980 the obesity rates for children were 7%.

That number rose to 20% by 2008.

In an exclusive interview with researcher Dr. Camille L. Hancock Friesen, whose recent work is being published by the Nova Scotia Health Research  Foundation,  12% of  Canadian children achieved recommended levels of activity in 2006-2007, but only 7% do so today.

Dr. Friesen investigated whether peer pressure could be used for good; reversing the trend toward inactivity among school children.

Peer Pressure: The Research Design

To study the effect of peers on physical activity in school aged children, Dr. Friesen and colleagues chose ten schools to monitor, five controls, and five Intervention schools. According to the research, “In  control schools, the program included a physical activity challenge and  education sessions. In intervention schools, the program included the addition  of a peer mentoring program.”  The peer mentoring program included a team component, and children’s activity levels were measured by pedometers.

The researchers also assessed family fitness; not surprisingly, children with high BMIs (body mass indexes), tended to have parents with higher BMIs and vice versa.  Additionally, the researchers noted that, “family income was positively correlated with positive physical activity questionnaire responses.”  In other words, the rich tended to be thin.

In an interview with Decoded Science, Dr. Friesen explained that the program included a variety of encouragements that occurred at monthly school assemblies. According to Dr. Friesen, examples included: “getting to run a victory lap around the gymnasium to music while the rest of the participants cheered the individual or the team’s accomplishment, to printed certificates with the student’s name and accomplishment.”

Peer support helps kids be active.  Image by woodleywonderworks

Peer support helps kids be active. Image by woodleywonderworks

The Results of Peer Pressure on Physical Activity and Educational Test Scores

The article concludes, “Participants in peer mentoring schools logged significantly more steps  per school day, on average, than those in control schools… Education tests and cardiovascular fitness testing indicated  significant improvement in both control and intervention schools from baseline.  Educational test scores improved, on average, 24%.VO2 max  improved, on average, 1.5ml/kg/min..”

What does that indicate? According to Runner’s World, “VO2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake, indicates the amount of oxygen consumed in milliliters per kilogram of body weight per minute. The higher the number, the more oxygen you get to the muscles, and the faster or longer you run.”  So, the kids were more physically fit after the study.

The Implications for Increasing Children’s Physical Activity

In our interview, Dr. Friesen noted that peer mentors “have been shown to have positive impact on self-esteem, behavior, academic performance amongst others.”  Encouragingly, physical activity can now be added to that list.  Schools, with their built-in peer groups,  may offer the best chance to combat child inactivity and the resulting childhood obesity

Sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood Obesity Facts. (2012). Accessed October 28, 2012.

Runner’s World. How to Improve Your VO2 Max. (2012). Accessed October 28, 2012.

Spencer, R.A. et al. The Role of Peer Mentors In Enhancing School-based Physical  Activity: The Heart Healthy Kids (H2K) Program Phase 2.  (2012). Presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress, co-hosted by the Canadian Cardiovascular Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

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