Activity Levels in Children Linked to That of Mothers


The debate between nature and nurture gets another jolt today as a study published in the journal Pediatrics shows a link between levels of physical activity in mothers and their children. The study does not specifically state that the only cause of the link is that of children observing the activity levels of their parents, but it does indicate that the link is statistically significant enough to be considered a direct correlation.

In the study, 545 women were studied along with their four-year-old children. All of the subjects were enrolled in the Southampton Women’s Survey in the U.K., a group based on population. Each woman and child wore an activity monitor for seven days. These monitors recorded heart rates and movement rates. The data from these monitors were collected and collated after the week was up.

The data showed that women who were more active had more active children, though only 53 percent of the women actually engaged in the 30 minutes of moderate or greater physical exercise recommended by U.K. health standards. The study indicates a concern that mothers in the U.K. are tending to more sedentary activities of late.

The Mayo Clinic in the U.S. published a similar study last year which indicated that women in the U.S. are engaging in less physical activity than they did 45 years ago. Both studies indicate that mothers seldom return to the level of physical exercise maintained before they bore children, and that women generally exercise less often than they did before becoming mothers.

From the link shown in the U.K. study, it was proposed that children are not as naturally active as previously thought. On the contrary, the children in the study were shown to be less active when their parents were less active. This indicates that activity levels in children are not only linked to but may even be influenced by that of their mothers.

There is a caveat in that it is possible that the more active children caused their mothers to be more active in turn to keep up with them. There is also significant variation in the mother-child pairings, so the study was unable to account for variables such as whether or not the mothers had jobs which required them to be less physically active, or whether the four-year-olds in the study had siblings whose presence might require more activity from the mother to keep up with multiple children.

The correlation in the study could not show cause, but it did show that for every minute of moderate to vigorous physical activity engaged in by mothers, the children of these mothers are likely to engage in ten percent more physical activity in turn. Because no causal relationships could be shown, this finding is likely to bring to resurgence the debate about whether such activity levels are passed on genetically or by observation, re-igniting the nature versus nurture dispute.

Whether the link found in the U.K. study is due to nature or nurture, the health benefits of an active lifestyle continue to be touted. Active parents are likely to pass on their lifestyles to their children, either by modeling the activity or by passing on genes related to these activity levels, or perhaps both. The link also indicates that making time to model good physical exercise habits can not but benefit children.

As health and lower obesity rates are linked to better exercise habits, these studies show that modeling good exercise habits to children may enforce their activity habits and help to fight obesity. The link between the activity levels of children and their mothers is a valid one and is likely to be studied in further depth as physicians seek the cause of the rise in obesity rates and sedentary lifestyles in Western industrialized societies.

By Kat Turner


CBS News


New York Daily News

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