Parents are fitness role models for their children

June 22nd, 2012 by University of Essex

Marathon runner Lee Merrien being interviewed after his win in the Sportingbet Fathers' Day Half Marathon in Guernsey. Lee Merrien's running clinics have helped many people become fit. (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

Children who said their parents do almost no physical activity have a 50% greater risk of being unfit than children with more physically active parents, according to new research.

In the year the Olympics are coming to Britain, the study found two-thirds of children think their parents do almost no physical activity, meaning they are proving to be poor role models for their offspring.

Researchers from the University of Essex asked more than 4,000 schoolchildren to rate how active they thought their parents were.

The researchers then got the children to complete a test of their cardio respiratory fitness (the ‘bleep’ test) and compared the results.

A quarter of the children who took part in the test were classed as ‘unfit’ but this likelihood was strongly influenced by how active they perceived their parents to be.

While 20% of the children said at least one of their parents was active, only 10% said they had two active parents.

Fathers were perceived as more active than mothers and the association with children’s fitness was stronger between fathers and children than mothers and children.

Dr Gavin Sandercock, a senior lecturer in clinical physiology (cardiology) at the University of Essex, who led the research, which has been published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, said “to be classed as fit in our test the children had to run at a speed equivalent to a medium jogging pace (7 mph) and its quite frightening that a quarter of children can’t do this.”

He added “we know that being unfit is much worse for your health than being obese and we are now finding out that it is also much more common.”

The researchers highlighted that as parents act as role models for their children, particularly girls, parents need to be seen to be active to show their children how to live a healthy, active life.

Dr Sandercock said some parents may actually be active but their children do not realise it.

However, the data tends to back up previous studies which show that adults are not getting enough physical activity.

To be active in the study parents had to be perceived by their children to do two or three sessions of physical activity per week including walking, cycling, running, going to play sport, going to a gym or an exercise class.

Dr Sandercock said “as parents we don’t need to be Olympic athletes to be good role models for our children. We need our children to know that we encourage and support their physical activity and, most importantly, we need our children to see us being active ourselves.”

The research follows recent calls for fitness testing in schools and calls by sports medicine practitioners to assess fitness PE in the way numeracy and literacy are assessed in maths and English. “We can’t carry on putting all the pressure on schools to get children fit and active when some parents might not be playing their part. Children spend less than 15 per cent of their time at school and only two hours a week doing PE,” said Dr Sandercock.

He added “if genetics was the main reason for the association we would see that mums’ activity levels were more important as some key genes for fitness come from your mother’s side. As dads’ activity levels were the best predictors of children’s fitness we think the effect is environmental.”


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