Campus News

Keeping it in the Family: Addressing Sedentary and Physical Activity Levels in Young Children

Bokie Muigai December 05, 2023

Two years after California lifted lockdown measures in schools, the activity levels of children have still not rebounded to where they were before the pandemic. Schools can play a significant role in providing a place and set time for children to be active contributing to their physical activity levels. “Yet, physical activity is lower than expected, sedentary time is higher than it should be, and obesity levels are increasing again,” reveals Britni Belcher, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Britni Belcher, PhD, MPH. Photo courtesy Britni Belcher, PhD, MPH.

Belcher’s research has been focused on providing evidence that short walking breaks for children can help interrupt sedentary time and provide benefits pertaining to improved mood, feelings, concentration, and metabolism. “I am trying to develop new ways to intervene on behavior in kids who are overweight or obese to determine whether we can prevent diabetes or at least delay the onset of illness,” she explains. Being active also positively impacts executive function, which is related to goal setting, self-control, and being able to have higher academic achievement. “Our studies are important because they help to identify potential interventions that don’t require specific settings to occur. They can be done anywhere without the use of special equipment,” she says.

Belcher’s study participants comprise of children ages seven to 11. She acknowledges that younger kids tend to be more likely to attain activity guideline recommendations. As a result, her research investigates how to prevent age-related decline in physical activity as these children progress into adolescence and puberty. “Among this age group, you have an opportunity for early prevention efforts to deter health challenges,” she recognizes.

Over time there have been several factors that have contributed to decreasing activity levels in children. One, has been the gradual shift of activities moving from outside to indoors. With more technological advances, children are spending more time on devices for recreational and learning purposes. The use of devices such as tablets or laptops have led to increased screen time. Coupled with the use of social media—which has been linked to poor mood and anxiety particularly in girls—technological use has impacted activities outdoors.

Another important factor is the environment where people reside. The disparities in neighborhood safety impact the number of spaces where kids can be active outdoors. “Schools can often play a significant role in creating safe places for physical activity. The closure of schools might have been one reason for less activity during the pandemic—depending on where the kids lived,” she suggests. In this light, Belcher’s research has shown how parental involvement can influence children’s activity levels.

In a prior study, she and her colleagues found that when children observed their parent’s being active or were provided with functional support, such as driving them to activities or buying them equipment, it resulted in higher levels of physical activity. This is particularly significant for parents with younger kids at risk of obesity because these parents exert more control over food options in the house and which activities their children participate in. 

“There are many opportunities throughout the day for kids to be active,” maintains Belcher. “For instance, involve your children in chores around the house, or park further away at the grocery store. These are things that the whole family can do together,” she advises. The benefits of being active as a family extend beyond physical health but also promote social-emotional development and overall health for kids.

Belcher hopes to adapt her interventions to varying populations such as children undergoing cancer treatment. Due to their illness and treatment, they often experience a high symptom burden that may limit their ability to get out and be active. These interventions which use small movement bouts and can be done at home could help mitigate their symptom burden and improve overall quality of life.

“I think over time sedentary kids tend to become sedentary adults,” assesses Belcher. In order to prevent the development of health risks as children grow, it is important to have interventions that deter them from being excessively sedentary.