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Kids follow their active friends, study says

May 27, 2012|By Mary MacVean

To any parent who has worried about their kids because they didn't like the behaviors of their peers, take heart. Things can go the other way. Researchers found that friendship "heavily influenced" the activity level of children in an after-school program.

Children didn’t form friendships based on activity levels, but adjusted their behaviors to match their friends, the researchers said Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

“The surprising thing: Children don’t necessarily pick their friends based on similar activity habits,” said William Stratbucker, a pediatrician and medical director of the Helen DeVos Healthy Weight Center in Grand Rapids, Mich. He was not involved in the study.

At a time when more than 23 million children in the United States are overweight or obese, that information could be used to create programs to prevent childhood obesity, he and the researchers said.

“Given the resistant nature of obesity once established, prevention efforts must start early in life. Antiobesity interventions have generally failed. New, effective approaches to obesity prevention are urgently needed,” wrote the researchers, who were from Vanderbilt University.

The power of after-school programs can be underestimated, Stratbucker said. It’s an important time – sometimes the only time -- for elementary schoolchildren to be active.

The researchers studied 81 children age 5 to 12 over several months in two after-school programs, using surveys to map their friendships and accelerometers – monitors worn on a belt -- to measure activity levels.

Children chose friends on such criteria as age, gender and race, the researchers said. They did not choose friends based obesity levels in this study, but the researchers noted that other studies have shown that to be a factor.

And Stratbucker has a thought for those parents who want to help their children avoid friends who are bad influences: “Now the really horrible risk-taking behavior is being sedentary.”

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