Active Voice: Parents shouldn’t miss active play opportunities with their children

By Genevieve F. Dunton, Ph.D, MPH

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Genevieve F. Dunton, Ph.D, MPH, is an assistant professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California. Her research is dedicated to understanding the behavioral contributors to chronic disease risk in children and adults, with particular focus on physical activity and nutrition. See the August 2012 issue of ACSM's Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise® (MSSE) for a related research article she coauthored, titled “Joint Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior in Parent-Child Pairs.”

Parents play an important role in shaping children’s physical activity levels through modeling and supporting children’s participation in sports and other activities. We know that physically active parents are more likely to have physically active children. However, until lately, we knew very little about how much physical activity parents and children actually perform together. In a recent study, we found that joint parent-child physical activity is quite rare. On average, parents and children spent only two and a half minutes per day in physical activity together, whereas they spent over an hour and a half together in joint sedentary behavior. Although discouraging, these findings were not completely unexpected. Families with kids are busy, and finding time to be physically active together can be tough.

The interesting part about our findings was that there was a substantial amount of time when children and parents were together, but only one member of the pair was engaging in physical activity. We found that children performed ten minutes per day of physical activity, on average, when their parent was nearby but without the parent being physically active. We have all seen those parents at the playground (maybe we’re even one of them), catching up on email or social networking on a mobile phone while their children are running around and playing on the equipment. Even more surprising in the study was that parents performed almost five minutes per day of physical activity, on average, with a sedentary child nearby. Although we didn’t have the ability to measure what type of activity that parents were doing when children were sitting around nearby, we suspect that some of it may be house chores such as raking leaves, mowing the lawn, or cleaning.

These types of situations are missed opportunities for parents and children to be physically active together. If parents are already spending time with their children, why not join them in the activity? Whether it’s getting up off your lawn chairs to join your children in a backyard game of capture the flag or putting down your smartphones at the playground and climbing onto the equipment with your children, these are all opportunities for us to increase our physical activity levels and model desired behaviors. Even better, why not ask your child to put down that video game and hand them a rake to help you with the lawn? The parent-child interactions stimulated by these joint activities are good for children’s social and emotional development. Also, if parents can get ten minutes per day of physical activity by joining their child in active play, they will be halfway to meeting the 150-minute-per-week recommendation put forth in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Parents can encourage their children to be more physically active, but our research suggests that children can also offer opportunities for parents to be more active. It’s a two-way street.