While children do not make or break friendships based on physical activity, a new study suggests their social network of friends can greatly influence how much they move. The research was published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday.
"We tend to think of teenagers as being very influential amongst their peers, but now we're seeing this in a younger age group as well," said study author Sabina Gesell, assistant professor of Pediatrics at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
"So with that influence, friends can bring each other up in their activity level or can bring them down to become more sedentary, depending on what they are doing themselves," she added.
Gesell and colleagues studied 81 children between the ages of 5 and 12 during a 12-week after-school program. They interviewed the children about who they were hanging out with the most. Children were equipped with devices called accelerometers to measure their levels of activity.
When given the choice to keep their activity levels the same or change them to match those of their pals, children were six times more likely to choose the latter. They became more active or more sedentary, depending on the activity levels of their closest friends. Many maintained their current levels of activity.
Gesell called the notion of using social networks to form interventions in the fight against childhood obesity "novel" and "promising."
She suggested that rearranging who plays with whom during playgroups in after-school programs could make impact.
"If we have groups who are typically sedentary, if we can sort of splinter them off and insert those kids into groups of active children, then those sedentary kids should become more active," she said. "We should be able to see this change within 12 weeks."
Dr. William Stratbucker, a pediatrician and the medical director of the Healthy Weight Center at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, agreed that this study highlights a scenario that could impact obesity prevention.
He noted that, "some kids chose to sit around and play games and other kids chose to run around and play on the playground."
Stratbucker said, "One big take-home message is that parents have to be aware of where their kids spend time during the day and if they're spending time in an after-school care program, which is very common, they need to be aware of what the environment's like there and what opportunities there are for the kids to be active."