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Active Friends Key to Combating Childhood Obesity, Study Suggests

A child's group of friends holds the greatest influence on determining how physically active that child will be, suggests a study published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

As such, the study authors propose that interventions in children's friendship networks could be key to altering physical activity behaviors amongst youths.

The study examined 81 children, from 5 to 12 years of age, from two public afterschool programs. Researchers from Vanderbilt University collected data about each child's physical activity and friendship networks three times, six weeks apart, throughout the course of one school semester.

They discovered that children weren't likely to make or break friendship ties based on physical activity level or obesity status. However, they found that "school-aged children assimilated to the activity level of their closest friends over the relatively brief period of 12 weeks."

In other words: Want your child to become more physically active? Pair him or her up with a group of physically active friends, the study suggests.

On average, children were over six times more likely to change their physical activity level to match their friends instead of maintaining their own physical activity level. While age and obesity affected a child's likelihood to adjust their activity levels, their friends' activity levels most strongly influenced their own physical activity.

This holds true both ways, according to the study's findings. If a physically active child pairs off with a group of more sedentary friends, that child will be more likely to decrease his or her physical activity level to match up with the friends.

Therefore, the study authors suggest, influencing friendship networks holds the potential to alter a child's physical activity level, which could be key in preventing childhood obesity.

"There's a pretty good chance that you could make some significant changes based on the social-influence factor alone," said study co-author Eric Tesdahl, a graduate student in Vanderbilt's department of human and organizational development, to HealthDay.

The study, "The Distribution of Physical Activity in an After-school Friendship Network," will be published in the June 2012 print issue of Pediatrics.

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