Children need structure to get active

By June Shannon Heart News   |   27th Sep 2018

If you allow children complete free choice they will be more likely to opt for an activity that involves sitting down.

Children who are given free choice over how to spend their leisure time are more inclined to choose a sedentary task over an active one. Therefore, parents who want their children to be more active, need to provide them with structured free time that includes physical activity, new research has suggested.

The study which looked at whether children’s psychological health could predict the amount of time they spent sitting down or being active, also found that increasing social connection in boys reduced their sedentary time however, this was not seen in girls.

The research was carried out by Dr Ian Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Loughborough University in the UK.

According to the study, “physical activity is beneficial for psychological health. Equally plausible, but less examined, is the idea that psychologically healthy children do more physical activity. Moreover, it is less known how psychological health influences sedentary behaviour.”

To answer this question, the study recruited 168 children (11- 12-years; 55 per cent female) and looked at the relationship between their psychological health and their physical activity and time spent sitting. Physical activity and sedentary time were measured by asking the children to wear accelerometers for seven days at three time points approximately six months apart.

The findings revealed that boys who were more socially connected i.e. valued their friends and social groups, were more likely to sit less

Increasing social connection in boys reduced their sedentary time however, this was not seen in girls.

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According to the study, “social connection maybe an important predictor of lower sedentary behaviour. Of importance for intervention, enhancing boys’ feelings of connection may reduce sedentary behaviour.”

This impact of social connection on reducing sedentary time was not seen among girls and speaking to the Irish Heart Foundation, the lead author of the study Dr Ian Taylor, said that this may be because of gender stereotypes.

“When boys get together they may be less inclined to sit and be sedentary, however, that is maybe not the same for girls in a stereotypical way. When girls get together it may not necessarily be very active, they could be engaging in sedentary pursuits,” Dr Taylor explained.

The study did not find any evidence to link psychological health and physical activity however, it did reveal that if you allow children, both girls and boys, complete free choice they will be more likely to opt for an activity that involves sitting down.

One of the ways the researchers measured psychological health in this study was by examining autonomy; this means having the freedom to do what you want to do rather than things you feel pressured to do. Studies have shown that people are more psychologically well if they are living freely and doing what they want to do. So typically, it is a good marker of psychological health, Dr Taylor said.

“What we found was the higher the reports of autonomy, the higher the sitting time. So, there is an interesting conflict there. If you give children complete psychological freedom to do what they want to do, if there is no structure in place they will be more sedentary and will freely choose to play a video game, for example,” Dr Taylor explained.

"If you give children complete psychological freedom to do what they want to do, if there is no structure in place they will be more sedentary and will freely choose to play a video game, for example,”

Dr Ian Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Psychology , Loughborough University in the UK.

Dr Taylor advised that parent who wish their children to be more active, need to avoid forcing them to do certain activities but rather create a structured environment where the things on offer are active.

“So maybe after school it is always child parent physical activity in the garden for an hour. So, still giving them that psychological freedom, but the opportunities are active rather than sedentary,” Dr Taylor suggested.

Other suggestions included going for a walk or taking part in a physical activity-based after school club.

According to Dr Taylor, “Quite often parents might tell their children when they come home from school they can do what they like for an hour, but if you do that, if you give them free choice, they will probably just sit-down and watch TV or play computer games.”

For parents who want to encourage their children to be more active Dr Taylor advised providing “an environment that gives them active options rather than just giving them free time. So, semi free time, structured free time, rather than just complete free time.”

Dr Taylor’s study entitled “Children’s psychological health as a predictor of sedentary time and physical activity,” was presented at the 32nd Conference of the European Health Psychology Society (EHPS) which took place in NUI Galway from 21 to 25 August. The EHPS is the largest professional organisation of health psychologists in Europe with more than 600 members worldwide and 750 delegates attended the conference.

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