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Study Aims to Identify Predictors of Physical Activity in Children

How much time do young children spend being physically active compared with being sedentary? Do these children meet the recommended 60 minutes/day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA)?

The findings may surprise you.

Children ages 8 to 10 spend more than 80 percent of their waking hours in sedentary behavior, according to a study published online today in PLoS One, and only 4 percent of their time engaging in MVPA. The MVPA percentage equates to roughly 20-25 minutes/day, which is less than half the daily recommended amount from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Researchers looked at data from a total of 482 children who all wore activity monitors called Actigraphs on their waists for at least three straight days to constantly measure their physical activity levels. The researchers set out to identify predictors of physical activity or sedentary behaviors in youths.

"Given the importance of physical activity in maintaining good health, we know we need to get our kids more active," said Dr. Mark Pearce, study author and director of Newcastle Thousand Families Study, in a statement. "What we hadn't known until now is how young we need to be catching them, or the reasons that lay behind their lack of activity."

Pearce and his colleagues discovered that by age 8, boys were already significantly more physically active than girls. At the same time, boys also were significantly less sedentary than girls.

Given the upcoming 40th anniversary of Title IX, the finding that gender differences in physical-activity levels appear this early in childhood development especially hit home for this blogger.

"One of the important things is that most girls don't see sport as cool," Pearce said. "We need to be tackling these issues earlier by encouraging girls to exercise, by providing a wider range of opportunities than are currently on offer, and by ensuring they see positive female role models, particularly in the media."

Beyond the gender discrepancies, the researchers discovered that children of both genders were, on average, less active in winter months than in the spring, summer, or fall. No surprises there—who likes being physically active in subfreezing temperatures?

One finding that may surprise you, however: Children whose parents restricted their access to television were found to spend decreased percentages of time in MVPA, compared with those whose parents held no TV restrictions. With "screen time" often carrying a negative connotation in physical-activity discussions, this finding merits further investigation.

The age of a child's father, at birth, also had an association with physical-activity levels. The older a child's father was, typically, the larger percentage of time the child spent being sedentary. However, a child's birth weight had no significant association to his or her physical-activity level later in childhood.

Earlier this year, the Institute of Medicine issued a report suggesting that schools have a critical role to play in combating childhood obesity. One finding of the new study appears to lend credence to that theory, as children who participated in after-school sports clubs were significantly more active than their peers who didn't.

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