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Peer selection after school can increase activity, reduce childhood obesity

May 29, 2012

by Carole Bartoo

Another tool in the battle against childhood obesity may be careful selection of who a child plays with after school. Vanderbilt’s Sabina Gesell, Ph.D., research assistant professor of Pediatrics, is first author of a study in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics that examines the group effect of peers on activity levels of children in after school care programs.

Eighty children, ages 5 to 12, were observed for 12-weeks during their after-care programs. The programs allowed children to interact with different peers throughout the day. Study participants wore a pager-like device called an accelerometer, which detects activity intensity levels over time. The children were observed and were asked to list the friends they “hung out with” the most.

“We found that children in this age group are six times more likely to adjust to their friends’ activity levels, than not. In fact a network of four to five immediate friends has a significant influence on any individual child regardless of their usual activity level,” Gesell said.

The results showed more active groups tended to draw a child up into greater activity levels, while groups that tended towards sedentary activities brought an individual child’s levels down.

“The average activity level of the group of friends is what influences an individual child. Children are constantly adjusting their activity levels to match their peer group,” Gesell said.

The researchers also examined whether children preferentially select groups based on activity level, perhaps choosing peers whose activity levels were similar to their own, but surprisingly, they found no such association. Children choose friends with other similarities (like being the same gender, age), but activity levels did not seem to be factor.

Gesell said this is exciting because more than eight  million children of working parents typically spend one to three hours per day in afterschool programs, making this an ideal place to get kids to be more active. Adjusting the makeup of playgroups to place children at-risk for obesity into groups with an activity level that is higher than their own is likely to influence them to be more active too.

Before testing such an intervention in the real world, Gesell will experiment with computer simulations to determine the tipping point at which embedding too many inactive kids in a playgroup will bring down the active kids’ activity levels.

“If you look at childhood obesity efforts across the country, many have failed to look at social context. It is important that we look at all the forces in play and intentionally leverage them to have a maximal impact,” Gesell said.

This research was funded through the Vanderbilt Institute for Obesity and Metabolism, the Vanderbilt Clinical and Translational Science Award (NIH), and the American Heart Association. Other authors of this paper are Vanderbilt’s Eric Tesdahl, M.S., and Eileen Ruchman, B.A.

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