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Mother and Child Activity Levels Linked: Study

Active Children

Story at-a-glance -

  • In a study of 4-year-olds and their mothers, mothers who were more active typically had more active children
  • A mother and child’s activity levels tend to be closely linked, yet many people become less physically active after having children
  • Exercise is equally important for kids and adults, with benefits for weight control, disease prevention, and improved brain function (and school performance) in both groups
  • Unless your child is seriously overweight or obese, resist the urge to overly structure your child’s “exercise time,” instead encouraging natural active play
  • Every time you fit in a workout, go for a hike, or walk the dog with your kids, you’re teaching them a positive lesson about fitness that will hopefully stay with them for a lifetime

By Dr. Mercola

People tend to become less physically active as they get older, and research shows that this sedentary trend is particularly strong after having a child.1

According to one study, after having a first or subsequent child, 20 percent of young women changed from being active to inactive.2 And while parents (with dependent children) across the board are less active than non-parents, mothers tend to be even less active than fathers.3

If you're a parent, this has implications for your health, of course, since regular physical activity (both exercise and non-exercise activity) is key for lowering your risk of chronic disease and maintaining your mobility, strength, and cognitive abilities as you get older.

What may be less obvious is that this tendency to become inactive affects your kids' health, too, with recent research showing a close tie between activity levels in mothers and their children.

More Active Moms Have More Active Kids

Research published in the journal Pediatrics involved data from more than 500 4-year-olds and their mothers; both groups wore movement-tracking devices during their waking hours for about a week.

As you might suspect, mothers who were more active typically had more active children, although the strength of the association depended on the child's weight, time at school, time of day and week, and the mother's education level. Overall, the activity levels among the children over a 14-15 hour period were broken down as follows:

  • 5 hours spent sitting or standing still
  • 8 hours spent on light physical activity (walking, etc.)
  • 1 hour spent on moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (running, etc.)

Mothers generally spent about one hour standing or sitting still, seven hours on light activity, and seven hours on more vigorous activity. The differing activity intensities, and sedentary time, were influenced by quite a few factors, including number and age of children at home, working hours, maternal BMI, and mother's age leaving school.

The researchers suggested that providing targeted interventions for mothers of young children may help to increase activity levels in both groups, with the take-home message of the study being that a mother and child's activity levels tend to be closely linked. If you're an active parent, your child is likely to be active, too. If you're not, your child is probably going to follow in your footsteps.

Why Physical Activity Is Important for Kids

It's not only adults who benefit from physical activity. Children have just as much to gain from regular exercise, but only one in three children are physically active every day.4 Kids spend a lot of time sitting in classrooms at school and in front of screens (television, video games, and computers) at home. Children now spend more than 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen!5

What does your child stand to gain from swapping some of that screen time for an active game of tag, a ride around the neighborhood on their bicycle, or a hike in the woods with mom and dad?

For starters, it lowers their risk of becoming overweight or obese. About one-third of US children aged 2-19 years are overweight or obese, and childhood diabetes has increased 10-fold in the last 20 years. If this epidemic is not reversed we will, for the first time in history, see children living shorter lives than their parents. The risks of obesity for children are really that steep. As reported by the New York Times:6

"A study that tracked thousands of children through adulthood found the heaviest youngsters were more than twice as likely to die prematurely, before age 55, of illness or a self-inflicted injury.

Youngsters with a condition called pre-diabetes were at almost double the risk of dying before 55, and those with high blood pressure were at some increased risk. But obesity was the factor most closely associated with an early death. Adults who had the highest body mass index scores as children were 2.3 times as likely to have died early as those with the lowest scores."

Beyond weight control, one of the primary benefits of exercise is that it normalizes your insulin and leptin levels, with the secondary benefits of weight loss and normalization of blood sugars. These basic factors in turn cascade outward, creating a ripple effect of positive health benefits, which are just as important for kids as they are for adults:

Improving your brainpower and boosting your IQ

Lowering your risk of heart disease and cancer

Building strong bones

Lowering your blood pressure Curing insomnia Losing weight
Relieving pain Balancing your mood and fighting depression Increasing your energy levels
Acquiring fewer colds Lowering your risk of diabetes and reversing pre-diabetes Slowing down your aging process

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Exercise Is Important for Your Child's Brain

The beneficial effect of exercise on brainpower deserves a special mention, as it has the potential to help your child excel in school and, ultimately, succeed in reaching their life's goals. Exercise encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by causing nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections and protecting them from damage. Animal tests have illustrated that during exercise, their nerve cells release proteins known as neurotrophic factors.

One in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health, and has a direct benefit on brain functions, including learning. According to one review of 14 studies, which ranged in size from as few as 50 participants to as many as 12,000, the more physically active schoolchildren are, the better they do academically.7  A test program conducted in 2010 at Naperville Central High School in Illinois also illustrated the power of exercise to boost school performance.

Students participated in a dynamic morning exercise program at the beginning of the day and had access to exercise bikes and balls throughout the day in their classrooms. The results were astounding. Those who participated nearly doubled their reading scores!8 Research has also shown that after 30 minutes on the treadmill, students solve problems up to 10 percent more effectively. The evidence speaks loud and clear that regular exercise can improve test scores, IQ levels, and task efficiency among students of all ages. Additional research highlights include:9

  • Among elementary school students, 40 minutes of daily exercise increased IQ by an average of nearly 4 points
  • Among 6th graders, the fittest students scored 30 percent higher than average students, and the less fit students scored 20 percent lower
  • Among older students, those who play vigorous sports have a 20 percent improvement in Math, Science, English, and Social Studies
  • Fit 18-year-olds are more likely to go on to higher education and get full-time jobs
  • Students who exercise before class improved test scores 17 percent, and those who worked out for 40 minutes improved an entire letter grade

Do You Need Help Staying Active with Kids?

If you have kids, it's especially important to make your workouts time-effective. Fortunately, it's a myth that you have to exercise for an hour, or even half an hour, daily to stay fit. If you exercise intensely, and correctly, you can achieve high levels of fitness with 20-minute workouts, or less. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is one such example. You can also break up your longer workouts into smaller 15-minute sessions twice a day. Try to schedule your workouts at a time you know you won't be interrupted, such as early in the morning or while your children nap.

For those days when you can't fit in a structured exercise session, stay active anyway. Stand instead of sit while you fold laundry, put your kids in a stroller and take a walk around your neighborhood, walk from the far end of the parking lot when running errands, and generally move around as much as you can. This type of non-exercise activity is actually emerging as a key player in optimal health, and may be just as important, if not more important than structured exercise. A simple goal is to stand up once every 10 minutes while you're sitting.

When you have preschool aged or older kids, make fitness a family affair by riding bikes, going for hikes, swimming, ice skating, and engaging in other vigorous activities as a family. Remember, your kids are watching your every move, and what better example could you set than to teach your kids the importance of staying physically fit? Every time you fit in a workout, go for a hike or walk the dog with your kids, you're teaching them a lesson about fitness that will hopefully stay with them for a lifetime. To get started, here are 10 ideas to stay active as a family.

Physical Activity Should Be Fun for Kids

Unless your child is seriously overweight or obese (in which case he may benefit from seeing a personal trainer who specializes in children), you shouldn't expect your child to log in 30 minutes on the treadmill or elliptical machine. The trick to getting kids interested in exercise at a young age is to keep it fun, not feeling like a chore.

Encourage your children to engage in activities that are naturally interesting to them, such as playing on the monkey bars, rollerblading, skateboarding, dancing, playing basketball with friends, or even helping you in the garden. Organized sports are great, but so are spontaneous romps through mud puddles, climbing trees, and making snow angels. Resist the urge to overly structure your child's "exercise time," instead encouraging natural active play.

Toward this end, allow your kids to exercise in bursts throughout the day -- a game of tag here, a bike ride there -- so they don't feel pressured or like they're being "punished." And, again, it's imperative that you act as a role model by staying active yourself. If your kids see you embracing exercise in a positive way, they will naturally follow suit.