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Could your child’s weight be influenced by their friendships? Study says yes

Parents have long known that a teen’s social circle can be a powerful influencer, but a new study reveals that the friendships your child has at a very young age may influence how active they are, and in turn, impact their weight.

A study released today by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that children are influenced by their social friendships, which sets physical activity patterns and affects their weight. Researchers studied children ages five through 12 in after school programs during 3pm and 6pm and mapped out each child’s social network. What they found was intriguing: that the strongest influence on moderate-to-vigorous physical activity was the activity level of their immediate friends.

“There have been hundreds of obesity interventions across the country and the vast majority of those have failed,” said lead author Sabina B. Gesell, PhD, a research assistant professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “The results of this study reflect that a child’s social environment can really influence how active they are. We found that children were six times more likely to adjust their activity levels to their friends than not. While kids weren’t hanging out with other children based on how active they were, their existing social circle was a significant influencer.”

More than 8 million American children are currently enrolled in after school care programs, says Dr. Geller, underscoring the potential impact that this study has for administrators and researchers who can better understand how to use that environment to improve children’s health.

“Children can either choose to be active or sedentary, and understanding that choice better can only help us encourage better habits,” says Dr. Geller.

Approximately 40 percent of the children studied were African American, followed by 39 percent white and 19 percent Latino. Obese children were less active than normal weight children and girls were less active than boys. Researchers also found that active children did not have more friends than nonactive children and children did not prefer or choose friends with similar weight status.

“We are seeing more pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes in children, so learning how friendship can play an important role in setting physical activity patterns in young children is good news,” says Shirley Gonzalez, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Massachusetts. “What we see here is that social network interventions after school hours hold the potentially to produce clinically significant changes to children’s physical activity.”

Dr. Gonzalez recommends that parents use this new information to their advantage when selecting after school programs for their children.

“Latino parents should visit various after school programs if they can and assess the level of activity among the kids, because that will influence their children one way or another,” advises Dr. Gonzalez.

“It’s important for parents to realize that social networks have the potential to impact their child’s future – and important when obesity is an issue in the community.”

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