“A program with clear rules, routines and activities, attentive adults and a chance to interact with peers in a fun environment appears to work as well as exercise at improving the quality of life, mood and self-worth of a child who is overweight or obese,” researchers report.
While regular exercise is clearly beneficial to children – and adults – the psychosocial health of children may benefit as much from other kinds of adult-led after school programs, Medical College of Georgia researchers report in the journal Translational Behavioral Medicine.
They looked at 175 predominantly African-American children ages 8-11 who were overweight or obese and were previously inactive. Children participated in either a fun-driven aerobic exercise program or a sedentary after-school program where they played board games and did artistic activities.
They found that, while the exercise program had the additional benefits of reducing body fat, improving fitness, and even improved brain health, there was no mood advantage from the exercise program. The report states, “Fatness and fitness did not change as much in the sedentary group.”
In fact, in the case of the boys, those in the sedentary group reported depressive symptoms actually decreased more over time than their peers in the exercise group.
The study found that children in the 8-11 age range may actually prefer just talking or socializing with their friends as a fun activity, rather than some form of exercise, while younger children may think it’s more fun to run around.
The fact that both programs provided psychosocial benefit to the children led the investigators to conclude that some benefits of exercise found in previous studies resulted from the regular opportunity to be with attentive adults who provide behavioral structure. It also resulted from the children enjoying interacting with each other, sharing snacks and other activities, while spending less time watching television.
There is plenty of evidence that obesity and being overweight can impact overall quality of life and that children with these conditions can have increased problems with anxiety, bullying, fatigue, anger and general behavior problems, and that generally higher BMI/body max index (a ratio of weight to height) is associated with a lower self-worth in children.
“Exercise is very well demonstrated to improve mood. However, I think you have to consider exercise in the context that it occurs, so the social context counts too,” says Dr. Catherine Davis, clinical health psychologist at MCG’s Georgia Prevention Institute and the study’s corresponding author.
How can parents encourage their children to be physically from the time they’re born? In my opinion, make physical activities and games FUN for the whole family! The key to successful participation is creativity and positive reinforcement as well as scheduling a regular time during the week as “family playtime” so children will learn to emulate their parents. Families need to work – and play – together to enhance physical fitness while building stronger relationships. With an integrated approach, parents, grandparents and children can create fun, recreational games that also increase self-esteem – and help families bond – while increasing kids’ physical activity.
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