Parents play a major role in whether their young children are active or become "couch potatoes," according to two new studies.
In one study, Oregon State University researchers looked at 200 families with children ages 2 to 4 to determine how parenting style affects children's physical-activity levels.
All the children spent four to five hours sitting during a typical day, but children of parents deemed "neglectful" (those who weren't home often and spent less time with their children) spent up to 30 additional minutes a day watching television, playing video games or being engaged in some other type of screen time.
"A half an hour each day may not seem like much, but add that up over a week, then a month, then a year and you have a big impact," study lead author David Schary, a doctoral student in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, said. "One child may be getting up to four hours more active play every week, and this sets the stage for the rest of their life."
Children sit too much
Schary was even more alarmed to find that all the children were sitting for several hours a day.
"Across all parenting styles, we saw anywhere from four to five hours a day of sedentary activity," Schary said. "This is waking hours, not including naps or feeding. Some parents counted quiet play - sitting and colouring, working on a puzzle - as a positive activity, but this is an age where movement is essential."
In the second study, Schary and a colleague looked at the same families and found that active play was most common among children whose parents played with them. But any level of parental encouragement - even just watching their child play or driving them to an activity - had a positive effect.
"When children are very young, playing is the main thing they do during waking hours, so parental support and encouragement is crucial," Schary said. "So when we see preschool children not going outside much and sitting while playing with a cell phone or watching TV, we need to help parents counteract that behaviour."
The studies were published in the journal Early Child Development and Care.
Fun and fitness
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about children and physical activity.
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