Friends may be key to your child getting or losing those extra pounds by way of more or less activity, suggests a small study co-authored by Eric Tesdahl, a graduate student in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Human and Organizational Development.
The study saw children in afterschool programs adjusting their activity levels based on those around them. The research also found that children do not group together based on activity level, but are instead influenced by those around them, adjusting activity levels by 10 percent to be more in line with peers.
The 81 participating children were between the ages of 5 and 12 with an average age of 8. Children, most of them Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks, were observed for a period of three months. Researchers asked the children questions about friends and tracked activity on accelerometers. The devices were only worn during the 3-hour afterschool session.
Results did not show what has always been thought to be the norm between kids — that obese children tend to befriend other obese children. Instead, the children selected friends for other reasons, weight or activity level were not factors and they adjusted their own activity levels according to who they chose as friends.
“It was much more likely for a child to adjust their activity level to that of their friends than it was for them to not adjust or to go in the opposite direction,” Tesdahl said to HealthDay.
While the study suggests overweight children could be steered toward a more active lifestyle when paired with active friends, it did not prove a direct correlation between friend activity and obesity or if the impact of active friends would make enough of a difference in overall health.
The research showing the intricacies between childhood relationships has been applauded by other experts. Some debate exists, however, regarding the length of childhood relationships and whether or not they remain intact long enough to impact overall health. “We tend to think of obesity as more of a chronic condition that we acquire over time. When the friendships are coming and going, you could make the argument that it may have less of an impact,” said Ray Brown, an assistant professor at Colorado State University’s Department of Health and Exercise Science.
The study results go along with other studies that have proven the influence of peers when it comes to issues like adolescent drinking, smoking and drug use, and even in areas related to diet habits.
A University of Buffalo study revealed overweight children who eat in company of a slim friend or a child they do not know, tend to eat smaller portions, than if they are eating with an obese friend.
“People around you establish a norm of what is appropriate to do,” said Dr. Sarah-Jeanne Salvy, a researcher who worked on the Buffalo study. “Although family has a huge impact on food and making foods available, kids are spending a lot of time with their friends, peers at school and on sports teams. The more they age, the more friends and peers have a bigger influence.”
An estimated 38 percent of young Hispanics – ages 2 to 19 – are overweight, compared to 19 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 35 percent of non-Hispanic blacks. Almost 21 percent of young Hispanics are considered obese. Considering these research findings could be relevant for outreach programs that target childhood obesity and sedentary lifestyles among Hispanic children.