The more active you are, the more active your child. So say University of Cambridge experts, after monitoring the lives of more than 500 women and their 4-year-olds.
Using activity monitors, researchers assessed 554 Southampton-based mums and their youngsters day and night, for up to a week.
“We saw a direct, positive association between physical activity in children and their mothers,” says study leader Kathryn Hesketh. “The more activity a mother did, the more active her child was.”
Mind you, as she then points out, it wasn’t exactly clear whether the more active mums were more naturally sporty or simply had children who ran rings about them! “Although it is not possible to tell from this study whether active children were making their mothers run around after them,” she adds, “it is likely that activity in one of the pair influences activity in the other.”
How much ‘activity’ are we talking about here?
The researchers were monitoring ‘moderate-to-vigorous’ physical activity – and say that only 53% of mums managed 30 minutes of this at least once a week.
And they found that, for every minute of moderate to vigorous activity a mum did, there was a 10% increase in the same level of activity in her child.
“We know they are many competing priorities for new parents,” says Kathryn Hesketh. “And making time to be active may not always be top of the list. But small increases in [your] activity levels may lead to benefits for both mother and child.”
How much activity does my child really need?
Under-5s should be active for at least 3 hours every day, according to NHS guidelines. But (before you panic!) the definition of ‘being active’ is wide enough to include standing up, moving around, rolling and playing, as well as more energetic stuff such as skipping, hopping, running and jumping.
The NHS also recommends that all adults aim to do some moderate-level activities, such as cycling or fast walking, for a total of 150 minutes a week (that works out at about 20 minutes a day), as well as some muscle-strengthening exercise – such as yoga, gardening or weights – twice a week.
Does this mean I need to hit the gym/get a trainer/go to Zumba?
No. What’s interesting about the study is that it’s all about being active with your child, not just on your own. So they’re talking walks in the park, hitting the swimming pool, kicking a ball around the garden or playing hide and seek round the house.
“If activity in mothers and children can be incorporated into daily activities,” explains Kathryn Hesketh, “so that both of you spend more time moving, activity levels are likely to increase. In return, this is likely to have long-term health benefits for both.
But I’m a working mum…
Panic not. The study included working mums (and children who spent some or all of the day in preschool/nursery settings), and so the researchers looked at activity levels through the whole week.
They found that parent-child activities such as walking were most strongly associated with the weekends. And, as long as you’re being active with your child when you’re home, there’s still a real benefit to be had.
“Small minute-by-minute differences,” says Kathryn Hesketh, “may add up to a non-trivial amount of activity over the course of a week, a month and a year.”