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Healthier kids just the click of a remote away

Looking for a simple way to increase your child's physical activity level? Try turning off the television, says University of Toronto research.

"Because television is so commonplace in our society, we don't realize how much of an impact it has on youth," says co-author Professor Ken Allison of the department of public health sciences and principal investigator in the physical activity research program. "We need to be reminded that it is crucial to turn them off in order to establish healthy and active patterns in childhood and adolescence that will remain with individuals into adulthood."

Television viewing has been long-suspected of whittling away valuable exercise time and U of T researchers have now shown a direct link between the tube and inactivity. In a recent study reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers tracked the weekly time spent on sedentary activities such as computer usage, video game playing and television viewing and then measured physical inactivity through daily energy expenditures assessed using a questionnaire. The researchers found a statistically significant link between TV viewing and lack of exercise; the more television children watch, the less energy they expend on physical activity.

The study was based on a sample of 7982 Canadian adolescents, ages 12 to19, from the 2000-2001 Canadian Community Health Survey, conducted by Statistics Canada. The survey revealed an alarmingly large portion of Canadian youth were inactive – 50.3 per cent of males and 67.8 per cent of females. Inactivity was defined as energy expenditure less than three kilocalories per kilogram of body weight per day, which is equivalent to approximately 60 minutes of brisk walking.

After controlling for sociodemographic variables, health status and body mass index, television viewing was significantly associated with inactivity for both males and females. For males this relationship was significant for those watching 20 or more hours of TV per week, while for females the relationship was significant with as little as 6 or more hours of TV viewing per week..

"We know that females report greater barriers to physical activity than males, so it may be that they feel they have less latitude in their discretionary time than males," says Allison. For example, he says that female adolescents attach more importance to a lack of time due to schoolwork, other interests, and family activities than males. Also females tend to have more family responsibilities than males, such as helping around the house and child care for young siblings.

While Allison admits breaking the television watching habit might be difficult for many adolescents, he offers some tips for parents looking to increase their kids' physical activity:

- Provide a positive role model for your kids by limiting your own TV viewing time.

- Plan television watching schedule and allow them to pick their favourite shows.

- Limit the use of snack foods while watching TV to once a week.

Allison concludes, "All kids, including my own, like to watch TV. The key here is to control the amount of TV viewing per week. This is crucial in order to promote physical activity and healthy weights among our greatest asset – our children."

Karen Kelly | EurekAlert!
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