To get kids active, moms should move it

"This study shows that mothers’ and young children's physical activity are closely related and that they are likely influencing each other’s behavior," says Esther van Sluijs. "Targeting small increases in physical activity in one of the pair may therefore have benefits for both." (Credit: Jeff Meyer/Flickr)

The more physically active a mother is, the more active her children will be, new research suggests.

A new study shows that mothers’ activity levels differs depending on her level of education, number of children, and weekly working hours. It also shows many mothers are not meeting the government’s recommended amount of physical activity per week.


Published in the journal Pediatrics, the study suggests that interventions to increase physical activity in preschool children should include an element which involves the mother, while also targeting specific times of the day, to achieve maximum impact.

“Parents are strong influences in the lives of young children, with patterns of behavior established in the early years laying the foundation for future choices,” says Professor Cyrus Cooper, director of the Medical Research Council Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton.

Every little bit helps

“Understandably there are many competing priorities for new parents and making time to be active is not always easy. However, our research has shown that mothers can influence how active their children are. Even a small increase in maternal activity levels may lead to benefits for mothers and children.”

The study measured the activity levels of 554 four-year old children and their mothers who took part in the Southampton Women’s Survey, the only study in the UK that recruited women before the conception of their children. Mothers and children were fitted with Actiheart monitors to record their physical activity levels for up to a week.

The resulting data allowed the researchers to plot physical activity throughout the day and over the course of an entire week to see how activities varied. The data from mother and child were matched up to see if and how the activity patterns of adults and children correlated.

Results show that on average, mothers engaged in about the same amounts of sedentary and light physical activity each day, with only 53 percent of mothers meeting the recommended 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on one or more days a week.

Mutual benefits

Light physical activity was more likely to occur on weekends, perhaps because fathers participate in higher intensity activities on weekends.

There was also a strong association between activity of mothers and children attending preschool part-time. Also, mothers who work a greater number of hours are more likely to be more sedentary, but also have less influence on their children’s sedentary time. Mothers with more children younger than the age of five seem to do more light physical exercise than those with one child.

“The influence of maternal activity on getting young children to be active cannot be underestimated,” says senior lecturer Nick Harvey. “Nor can the role of fathers and other siblings. Given the link between mothers and young children, policies to improve children’s health should be directed to whole families and seek to engage mothers in particular.”

“This study shows that mothers’ and young children’s physical activity are closely related and that they are likely influencing each other’s behavior,” says co-author Esther van Sluijs at the University of Cambridge. “Targeting small increases in physical activity in one of the pair may therefore have benefits for both.”

Source: University of Southampton