Want Your Kids to Exercise? Use Positive Peer Pressure

Kids—especially those who are overweight—tend to be more active when with peers or friends.

March 24, 2009

Leap of faith: Get your kids together with their friends, and chances are they'll get some exercise.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Hanging with your buds is a time-honored rite of teendom. A new study finds it may actually promote a more active lifestyle. But don’t tell them that; you still want them to think it’s cool.

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THE DETAILS: Scientists from the State University of New York at Buffalo questioned 10 boys and 10 girls for one week about their activities and whether they were alone or with others. The kids were all between ages 12 and 14. Every 2 hours for 7 consecutive days, the kids were asked by pager what they were doing, how active they were, how many people were with them, and similar questions. (Since they were being asked by scientists, not their parents, they didn’t mind answering.) When the results were analyzed, the presence of peers turned out to be the only significant predictor of the children’s activity intensity. All the kids were more active when with peers or friends than when they were alone. This was especially true for overweight kids, who were even more active than normal-weight kids when they were with friends.

WHAT IT MEANS: We usually think of peer pressure as a bad thing, but in this case kids seem to influence each other’s behavior in healthy ways. The study authors note that being with peers tends to offer active alternatives to overeating and couch-surfing, two behaviors that seem particularly attractive to kids who are alone. In fact, the authors contend, the power of friendship is so strong for kids that it may be a necessary component of any attempt to get them to be more active.

Here’s how you can harness friendly peer pressure to keep your child at a healthy weight:

• Start with simple invitations. Rather than sign up a child for soccer, start by having him invite some friends over. Make sure that computer, TV, and video games are off limits most of the time. Instead, give them access to anything that will encourage exercise: bats and balls, Frisbees, jump ropes, super soakers, etc., and let nature take its course. Or pay them a nominal fee to do an active project that might be kind of fun: digging garden beds, hanging a tire swing, walking and washing your dogs.

• Gather a group to walk to school. Young teens who trek to and from school are 27 percent more active during the rest of the day than those who get a ride, according to a Scottish study. Even walking just one way appears to increase activity throughout the day. Talk with other parents about sending your kids to school together following a set, safe route.

• Organize group activities. Slap on your cruise director hat and plan some fun, active outings for your teen and her friends. Take them bowling, roller-skating, ice-skating—even to the batting cage or driving range.