Girls stick with sports and physical activity when their parents show them that fitness matters, either by setting an example or by encouraging their athletic pursuits.
When neither parent directly promotes or supports exercise and athletics, just 30% of girls are physically active, according to a new report from researchers at Pennsylvania State University.
When one parent gets involved, that figure rises to 56%. And when both moms and dads show their daughters that fitness matters, 70% of girls report being very physically active, according to findings in the September issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, published by the American College of Sports Medicine.
The findings were based on interviews with 180 white girls when they were 9 years old, as well as surveys completed by their parents. Typically, their moms tended to provide more logistical support, while their dads tended to use their own behavior to encourage daughters to get moving.
"It's a nice study," said Dr. Lyle Micheli, director of sports medicine at Harvard-affiliated Children's Hospital Boston. Just as eating patterns are passed on from parent to child, "we've often thought that exercise patterns in various and sundry ways are transferred consciously and unconsciously to the children," he said. "If the parents put a high value on exercise, it seems to come through and is expressed as more exercise by the kids."
There's been a long-standing perception that a daughter's interest in physical activity is fed by her father's interest, he said, noting that "one of our jokes around the hospital is that you can tell which is the sports medicine clinic, because the fathers are there too." But the new study demonstrates "that the mother is part of the deal too."
All this attention to fitness is important at a time when American kids are turning into couch potatoes, more likely to plant themselves in front of the TV or computer than head outside to kick a ball, swing a bat or take a bike ride.
Most U.S. youngsters fall far short of recommendations for physical activity, and even more abstain from vigorous sports. This sedentary tendency is a major contributor to the dangerous rise in childhood obesity, setting the stage for Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Girls' activity is of particular concern, because not only do they tend to be less physically active than boys, they also are more likely to drop out of fitness pursuits when they hit puberty. The study captured the attitudes of girls before that time, when it's particularly important to establish good habits.
If you wait until high school, Micheli said, "it's too late. You've got to get them by 10 to 14."