PhotoDavid Schary, a family health researcher at Oregon State University, was disturbed by what he was seeing. In a study on children and physical activity -- all of the children ages two to four were sitting more than several hours a day.

Leading a team of fellow researchers, Schary set out to determine what role parents played in their children's increasingly sedentary lifestyle. What they found is that parents exert quite a bit in influence, more so than the growing availability of high-tech diversions that can keep kids glued to video screens for hours at a time.

In two studies for the journal Early Child Development and Care devoted to “Parental Influences of Childhood Obesity,” OSU researchers examined how parenting style – whether a strict but loving parent or a less-involved and more permissive parent – was associated with sedentary behavior.

30 minutes a day

Overall, they found that children who had “neglectful” parents, or ones who weren’t home often and self-reported spending less time with their kids, were getting 30 minutes more screen time on an average each week day.

“Across all parenting styles, we saw anywhere from four to five hours a day of sedentary activity,” Schary said. “This is waking hours not including naps or feeding. Some parents counted quiet play – sitting and coloring, working on a puzzle, etc. – as a positive activity, but this is an age where movement is essential.”

In the study, parents were grouped into four commonly used scientific categories – authoritative (high warmth and control), authoritarian (controlling, less warm), permissive (warm, low control), and neglectful (low control and warmth).

All the children in the sample of 200 families spent too much time sitting – typically four to five hours a day. But the study found that parents in the more neglectful category had children who were spending up to 30 additional minutes a day watching television, playing a video game or being engaged in some other form of “screen time.”

It adds up

“A half an hour each day may not seem like much, but add that up over a week, then a month, and then a year and you have a big impact,” Schary said. “One child may be getting up to four hours more active play every week, and this sets the stage for the rest of their life.”

Pressures of work might keep parents from participating as much as they would like during the week, but maybe they make up for it on the weekend. Actually, just the opposite happens. Sedentary time increased nearly one hour each weekend day in the neglectful category.

Bradley Cardinal, a professor of social psychology of physical activity at OSU, co-authored both papers with Schary. Cardinal said sedentary behavior goes against the natural tendencies of most preschool-age children.

“Toddlers and preschool-age children are spontaneous movers, so it is natural for them to have bursts of activity many minutes per hour,” he said. “Early life movement is imperative for establishing healthy, active lifestyle patterns, self-awareness, social acceptance, and even brain and cognitive development.”

In a separate study, Schary and Cardinal looked at the same group of participants and asked about ways parent support and promote active play. They found that parents who actively played with their kids had the most impact, but parents who did anything to encourage or promote active play made a difference.

The researches say parents need to maintain and increase that level of support, calling it a common sense way to prevent childhood obesity.

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