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Family dogs boost children’s physical activity levels 

The ongoing battle against the sedentary lifestyle prevalent among American youth has prompted researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to explore innovative avenues to encourage physical activity among children. 

With a staggering two-thirds of children in the U.S. not meeting the recommended 60 minutes of daily moderate to vigorous physical activity, the study led by the university’s kinesiology experts has analyzed the influence of family pets, specifically dogs, on encouraging kids to be more active. 

Initial observations 

The initial findings revealed an intriguing connection between children’s physical activity levels and interaction with their family dogs, accounting for about 20% of their daily exercise, highlighting the potential of pets in fostering healthier lifestyles among children.

The research of senior author Katie Potter, an assistant professor of kinesiology at UMass Amherst and the director of the UMass Behavioral Medicine Lab, aims at devising practical strategies to boost physical activity, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between children and dogs.

Promoting physical activity in children 

“There are so many ways we might leverage the human-dog bond to promote physical activity in kids, but first, we need to understand how much physical activity dog-owning kids get with their dogs,” she explained. 

To clarify this, the scientists initiated a more extensive study, aiming to capture a broader and more diverse demographic to solidify their initial observations.

Expanding upon the pilot study

The research team is now engaging families from beyond Western Massachusetts, enabling a wider participation through a remote study setup. 

Participants, including children aged 7 to 10 years and their canine companions, are equipped with ActiGraph accelerometers featuring Bluetooth technology to monitor and measure proximity-based physical activity as they engage in their everyday routines.

“Our preliminary study was the first time that this type of research had been done specifically quantifying physical activity with the dog and the kid in proximity together,” said lead author Colleen Chase, a doctoral student in Potter’s lab. 

“We’re interested in replicating that study to see whether that 20% value holds at a significant sample size of participants.” 

Pet ownership and children’s physical activity

This novel approach opens the door to a deeper understanding of how pet ownership may influence the physical activity levels of children, potentially informing future public health interventions aimed at combating childhood obesity and inactivity.

The broader impact of this study lies not just in its immediate findings but in its contribution to a larger conversation about the multifaceted strategies needed to address physical inactivity among children. 

New pathways to enhance children’s health

“This is a pretty concerning issue in the United States right now. That’s why we’re trying to get creative with methods to address this. It’s a very wholesome line of research. You know, we’re working with kids. We’re working with dogs. But we do have these larger, significant health problems that we are working to address through this research,” Chase said.

Through a meticulous blend of technology, behavioral science, and the intrinsic bond between humans and animals, Potter, Chase, and their team at UMass Amherst are uncovering new pathways to enhance children’s health and well-being. 

The research not only highlights the potential role of family dogs in promoting physical activity but also sets a precedent for the integration of pets into broader public health strategies to ensure a more active, healthy future for our children.

Children’s physical activity levels in the United States 

Physical activity levels among children and youth in the United States remain a concern. According to the CDC, less than a quarter of children aged 6 to 17 years engage in 60 minutes of physical activity every day​ (CDC)​. 

Overall physical activity grade

The 2022 United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth reflects a similarly challenging picture, with an overall physical activity grade of D–. This grade indicates that only 21% of children and youth ages 6 to 17 meet the guideline of 60 minutes of physical activity daily. 

Age and income disparities 

The report also highlights disparities based on age and income, with physical activity levels dropping significantly as children get older and lower levels of active transportation and organized sports participation among youth from lower-income households​ (ACE Health & Fitness)​.

Comprehensive assessment 

The report card also graded other areas related to physical activity, such as organized sport participation (C), sedentary behaviors (D), and sleep (C+), showing a nuanced landscape of factors influencing children’s physical fitness and activity levels.

For example, although there’s a slight improvement in organized sport participation, the prevalence of sedentary behaviors and inadequate sleep among youth presents ongoing challenges​ (ACE Health & Fitness)​.

This comprehensive assessment, which is the fourth of its kind since 2014, serves not only as an accountability tool but also as a call to action for implementing new initiatives, programs, and policies to support healthy environments and improve physical activity levels among children and youth​​.

The study is published in the Journal for the Measurement of Physical Behavior.


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