Active Voice: Better with a Buddy How Best Friends Could Be Important for Children's Physical Activity
By Russell Jago, Ph.D.
Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.
Russell Jago, Ph.D., is Reader in Exercise, Nutrition & Health in the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences at the University of Bristol in the U.K. His research focuses on children’s physical activity and behavioral interventions to increase physical activity and prevent childhood obesity. In the Feb. 2011 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise® (MSSE), Jago coauthored related research entitled, “Better with a Buddy: Influence of Best Friends on Children's Physical Activity”.
A large proportion of young people do not engage in recommended levels of physical activity. Different investigational approaches have been employed to increase youth physical activity. The vast majority of these, including studies that I have been involved with, have either yielded no significant increase in physical activity or only a small increase in a particular subgroup. While these findings are always personally discouraging, the bigger issue is that we must find new ways to help children and adolescents increase physical activity. Thus, our challenge is to identify new approaches, or variations on old approaches, that just might work.
Although a great deal of work has examined how environmental factors or psychosocial variables may predict youth physical activity, little research has examined how a child’s friends may influence his or her physical activity patterns. This is surprising, as I have always found physical activity to be more fun when I exercise with a friend. It seems likely that friends will also influence youth physical activity. However, while a number of studies have shown that social factors are key predictors of girls’ physical activity, there has not been examination of how friendship groups may positively or negatively affect all children’s physical activity.
In our recent MSSE paper, we tried to fill this important gap by looking at how the physical activity patterns of self-identified best friends were associated with the physical activity patterns of 10-to-11-year-old children in Bristol. Our data indicated that girls who participate in physical activity with their best friend five or more times per week obtained nine more minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per day than those who were active with their best friend once a week or less. Girls who were active with their best friend at home or in the neighborhood obtained six more minutes of MVPA per day than those who were only active with their best friend at school. Similarly, boys who were active with their best friend at home or in the neighborhood obtained 11 more minutes of MVPA than those who were just active with their best friend at school. As the boys in our study were obtaining an average of 42 minutes of MVPA per day, and the girls were obtaining an average of 30 minutes of MVPA per day, these analyses indicate that having best friends who are active and active outside of school can make significant contributions to children’s physical activity levels.
Our findings suggest that we need to find ways to foster physical activity among friends and encourage children to take part in physical activity with their best friends. Providing opportunities away from school and as often as possible should be an essential part of this strategy. Thus, our challenge will be to find ways to not just disseminate this message to children but also to find ways to help them achieve this goal.