June 9, 2011

Study shows pre-schoolers take activity cues from their parents

Study shows pre-schoolers take activity cues from their parents

Pre-schoolers are not always the active balls of energy we think they are. Instead, they often take their activity cues largely from their parents.

Rachel Ruiz

Rachel Ruiz

That’s the finding of a study by Rachel Ruiz, a third-year Vanderbilt University School of Medicine student who took her data from a trove of information contained in a larger study conducted by her mentor, Shari Barkin, M.D., director of the Division of General Pediatrics.

Ruiz looked at baseline data from 85 Latino children age 3 to 5 and their parents. The parents and children were preparing to be part of the Salud con la Familia (Health with the Family) childhood obesity study from which Barkin has published several papers. Over the course of seven days, both children and adult participants wore accelerometers, devices worn like pagers, to provide information about activity levels throughout the day.

The data show the mean percentage of time spent in sedentary activities, such as drawing, cooking or watching television, was 82 percent for parents, and 68 percent for their pre-school-age children. This correlation surprised Ruiz.

“I was shocked at the influence parents had on their children, in terms of their activity levels and sedentary behavior. This work dispells the notion that young children are running around all the time when in fact they mimic their parents,” Ruiz said.

Children did spend a total of about 45 minutes engaged in moderate to vigorous movement, while their parents had almost no activity like this, but the rest of the day’s activity levels were similarly low. The research found no significant differences in activity levels between boys and girls.

Ruiz said it was an amazing experience to work on the study, which was published online at www.pediatric.org, the website of the journal Pediatrics.

“I am half Latina so as a member of this community, I feel particularly invested in serving it in the future. Latino children, compared with the rest of the U.S. population, are less active and more overweight, specifically in the Mexican-American community. As the population grows, health issues will be harder to ignore,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz will continue to work with Barkin, who also directs the Pediatric Obesity Research, Diabetes Research and Training Center. She says she will be very interested to see the results of the next step in this research: to determine what interventions could increase physical activity and childhood health.