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Objects in motion

Exercise science prof reflects on half-century of children’s physical activity research

When Russ Pate began his research on children and physical activity in the 1970s, he sometimes got puzzled looks.

“When I would say to people, ‘We want to learn how to get kids to be more physically active, the initial reaction at that time was, ‘I'm not sure we really need to worry about that,’” says Pate, who joined the University of South Carolina’s faculty in 1974. “We’d have to say, ‘Here are the numbers and here’s what this probably means,’ and then they usually got it.”

Unfortunately, the data that Pate and other researchers were seeing nearly 50 years ago turned out to be a harbinger of today’s crisis of obesity and physical inactivity among children and adolescents.

“I figured out a long time ago that boredom avoidance is a real driver for kids, and back then staying inside the house was not that interesting — there weren’t laptops or cable TV or cell phones,” Pate says. “If mom said go out and play, most kids were happy to do that because it was more interesting than what was going on inside. Obviously, the home social environment has changed dramatically.”

The research of Pate’s team and that of other physical activity scientists has underscored that children who are more active are at lower risk of becoming overweight or obese than less active kids. And those with better strength, fitness and endurance generally have fewer risk factors for chronic conditions later in life such as heart disease and diabetes. But there’s more to the equation.

I like to operate on the positive assumption that there's a form of physical activity out there for everybody.

Russ Pate, professor, exercise science

“Our field is increasingly interested in brain and mental health, and it's clear that more active kids show better profiles for anxiety and risk of depression and so on,” says Pate, who was exposed to sport and physical education early on by his father who was the physical education  coordinator and athletic director for schools in Hartford, Conn. “We're in this immediate post-COVID era where we're hearing a lot about mental health issues in kids. In a sample of kids that we are studying, those who were more physically active during the pandemic were at lower risk of negative mental health outcomes.”

Pate’s research over the past several decades has focused on factors that influence and determine children’s physical activity, which is a complicated behavior, he says. That’s why he has often collaborated with colleagues in other academic departments who trained in different fields.

“For decades we've had a rotating cast of characters that have worked with our research group to bring in expertise that we needed for various projects,” says Pate, who has trained nearly two dozen doctoral students during his 49-year-long career in the university’s Arnold School of Public Health. “No one person can have all the expertise that it takes to do this research well. You need people who can manage and analyze data, people that know a lot about the setting in which you’re conducting research and those who know a lot about the psychology of parenting or child psychology.”

Over time, Pate’s group has established some basic tenets of understanding children and physical activity.

“They’re much more likely to be physically active if they’ve got older siblings and other kids in the neighborhood who are active than if they’re a child that's kind of isolated,” Pate says. “Kids in our studies who say there's play equipment in their home tend to be more active. And kids who say their parents transport them to practices or the park or places where they can be physically active are more active than kids who don't [have parents who do that].”

Not surprisingly, children who say they enjoy physical activity and feel competent in that activity — whether it’s bike riding or soccer or running or whatever — are more active than children who don’t respond positively, Pate says. The take-home message is that parents should expose their children to activities that they're going to enjoy.

“Don't try to ram some form of activity down a kid's throat just because you liked it or some other kid liked it,” Pate says. “If they don't enjoy it and if they don't feel competent or successful when they do it, it probably isn’t going to last very long.

“I like to operate on the positive assumption that there's a form of physical activity out there for everybody. We’ve just got to make the match, get them exposed to it, see what they like, see what they're good at, and then give them opportunities to engage in those forms of activity.”

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