No surprise there -- but do you know the best ways to lead by example?

Hanging crunches
Credit: Photographs by Kinzie & Riehm

We tend to assume that young children are naturally active and require little adult modeling to encourage these behaviors. But new research suggests that's not true. Parents' activity levels have a big impact on how active — or not — their young children are, according to a British study which found that the example mothers set determined how active or sedentary their children were. So, parents who forgo their own exercise regimens may be unintentionally raising less active children. And the fallout from parents who simply never exercise much at all is even worse.

The current recommendations for adult activity call for 150 minutes per week of mild to moderate exercise, which includes brisk walking. It is not clear how many parents of young children manage that, but as the recent British study makes clear, exercise habits within a family can impact other members.

Researchers specifically explored how mothers' activity levels affect their young children. Earlier research has found that active mothers tend to have active school-aged children, but there had been little attention paid to preschoolers. Researchers attached accelerometers (which measure movement and velocity) and pedometers to 554 mothers and their 4-year-olds to measure their exercise levels for up to one week. The devices were worn at all times and recorded when, how long, and how intensively the participants exercised. This allowed the moms' and children's exercise habits to be compared closely by hour, time, and day of the week.

Judging from this sample, most moms don't exercise enough. Only half of the moms in the study engaged in 30 minutes of mild-to-vigorous exercise even once a week. The data also showed that mothers and children tended to be active at the same times throughout the day.

But the biggest news was that the more active a mother was, the more activity the child did. This was most apparent in early and late in the day. In general, for every minute of moderate-to-vigorous activity a mother engaged in, her child was more likely to engage in 10 percent more of the same level of activity. Similarly, the more sedentary a mother was, the more it was reflected by an increase in her children's inactivity. Not surprisingly, mothers of more than one child were generally more active than those with just one child.

The findings should encourage mothers of young children to be more active and encourage their kids' activity. The researchers hope the study will also make mothers more aware of the negative message their own sedentary time — in front of the TV or computer, for example — sends to their children If you've set aside your own exercise regimen, consider taking them up again, free of guilt over stealing some "me" time, and perhaps including your children if possible.

This article originally appeared on The Doctor Will See You Now.

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