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Arnold School of Public Health


Researchers find ways to increase physical activity among preschool children

February 8, 2016 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

As obesity rates remain elevated among young children in the United States, a group of researchers,* including six from the University of South Carolina, are studying how physical activity can be increased among preschool-aged children. The research was prompted by the findings of previous studies that show many young children participate in less physical activity than experts recommend.

“Because millions of children spend much of their day in preschool, that setting is a critical one in which to promote physical activity,” says lead author Russell Pate, who is a Professor of Exercise Science and the Director of the Children’s Physical Activity Research Group at the Arnold School of Public Health.

The study, which was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, tested an intervention designed to increase children’s physical activity in a preschool setting. The intervention examined whether physical activity could be increased among four-year-old preschool children by changing instructional practices.

The researchers trained preschool teachers to engage children in physical activity during structured, teacher-led physical activity opportunities in the classroom and at recess. The teachers also learned how to integrate physical activity into pre-academic lessons and were encouraged to adapt the intervention techniques to their classrooms.

After analyzing the physical activity levels of nearly 380 children at 16 public and private preschools over a two-year period, the researchers found that the intervention was effective at increasing children’s physical activity in a preschool setting. Children who participated in the intervention engaged in significantly more moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity (7.4 minutes/hour) than those in the control schools (6.6 minutes/hour). Even after adjusting for parent education and the length of the school day (i.e., half versus full day), the difference remained significant.

“The take-away message from this study is that preschool teachers can, in fact, modify their instructional practices in ways that increase physical activity across the school day,” says Pate, who already has ideas for follow-up studies. “We need research that will enhance our ability to fully implement school-based interventions to increase children's physical activity. Interventions that are implemented with great fidelity will produce substantial increases in physical activity and will contribute importantly to preventing childhood obesity.”

*Co-authors include: William H. Brown (Department of Educational Studies), Karin A. Pfeiffer (Michigan State University), Erin K. Howie (Department of Exercise Science), Ruth P. Saunders (Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior), Cheryl Addy (Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics), and Marsha Dowda (Department of Exercise Science).