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Impact of Parents’ Physical Activity on Preschoolers

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  • Physical activity among preschoolers is important for preventing childhood obesity and promoting cardiovascular health.
  • A study was conducted to examine the impact of physical activity and sedentary behaviors of parents on preschoolers.
  • The study concluded that increasing physical activity is not only good for parents' health but it also helps set these behaviors in their young children.

 Impact of Parents’ Physical Activity on Preschoolers

Preschool-age children from low-income families are more likely to be physically active if parents increase activity and reduce sedentary behavior.

The researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center aimed to study the impact of parent modeling of physical activity (PA) and sedentary behaviors on their preschool children in low-income American ethnic minorities .


Children from low-income families in the U.S are less likely to engage in physical activity and more likely to be obese.

"This study highlights how important parents' physical activity is to shaping their young children's physical activity," said principal investigator Shari Barkin, M.D., MSHS, William K. Warren Foundation Professor in Medicine, director of Pediatric Obesity Research, and chief of the Division of General Pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.

Physical activity is a critical factor for preventing childhood obesity and promoting good cardiovascular health.

Moderate to vigorous PA (MVPA) reduced the odds of obesity in young children.

It is recommended that all preschoolers obtain at least three hours a day of total physical activity (light, moderate and vigorous) with at least one hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA).

But only less than half of preschoolers actually achieve that recommendation.


The researchers recruited more than 1,000 parent-child pairs living in metro areas of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, and Nashville, Tennessee. About 75% of the children were Latino and almost 10%, African-American.

The study examined the impact of modeling of physical activity (PA) and sedentary behaviors by parents on preschoolers in low-income American ethnic minorities.

In this study:
  • 60% of the children were normal weight
  • 30% were overweight
  • 10 percent were obese
  • more than three-fourths of the parents were overweight or obese
For the study, each parent and child wore an accelerometer for monitoring movements for an average of 12 hours a day, for a week.

This is the first study to link the physical activity of parents and young children by objectively measuring that physical activity with such a long wear time for an accelerometer.


"The good news is that increasing physical activity is not only good for parents' health, it also helps set these behaviors in their young children as well. It's doubly good for family health. Setting this habit early could impact good health not only in childhood but in adulthood as well." Shari Barkin added. The total physical activity of preschoolers was calculated to be at 6.03 hours per day with 1.5 hours spent in moderate to vigorous activity.

The researchers found that 40 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) by a parent correlated with the MVPA level of their preschool-age child.

A strong association between parent and child sedentary behavior and mild physical activity was detected.

For every minute of sedentary behavior among parents, the sedentary behavior of children increased by 0.10 minutes.

For every minute that a parent engaged in light physical activity, the child's light physical activity increased by 0.06 minutes.

Increasing physical activity and reducing sedentary behavior among parents correlated with increased physical activity behaviors in children, the researchers concluded.

"We are completing a three-year-long intervention for childhood obesity prevention, called the Growing Right Onto Wellness (GROW) Trial, that includes parents' healthy lifestyle behaviors as well as their children's healthy behaviors for more than 600 parent-child pairs. We will be able to examine how parents and children can utilize their existing built and social environments to maximize good health and to set and maintain healthy habits," Shari said.

This study is part of Barkin's ongoing research into childhood obesity and is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.


  1. Shari L. Barkin, et al. Parent's Physical Activity Associated With Preschooler Activity in Underserved Populations. American Journal of Preventive Medicine ; (2017) DOI:http:dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2016.11.017

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