New UTHealth Houston study highlights key factors boosting children’s physical activity levels

Photo of Christopher D. Pfledderer, PhD, MPH.
Christopher D. Pfledderer, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Pfledderer)

A study published this month in Frontiers in Public Health revealed that participation in organized sports and other structured physical activities, in addition to playing outdoors, significantly increased the likelihood of children meeting a recommended daily 60-minute physical activity requirement, according to UTHealth Houston.

Children should have an hour of physical activity each day, according to the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Led by Christopher D. Pfledderer, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, the research analyzed data of fourth grade children from the 2019-2020 Texas School Physical Activity and Nutrition survey. The survey, an ongoing project conducted by the Michael andSusan Dell Center for Healthy Living at UTHealth Houston, reports on the statewide prevalence of children with obesity and assesses habitual self-reported behaviors, including diet and physical activity. 

“Our work is helping connect the dots between children’s physical activity and the environments in which they are most active,” said Pfledderer, who is a faculty member at the Michael andSusan Dell Center for Healthy Living. “The research is essential to curbing the childhood obesity crisis and helping children create healthy habits earlier in life.” 

The study found that 16.7% of fourth grade children met physical activity guidelines every day during the week, and 1 in 10 children did not meet any of the daily guidelines on any day. Nearly two-thirds, 72%, met physical activity guidelines between one and six days a week.

Key findings from the study included:

  •       Outdoor play as a consistent predictor: While sports participation is a significant contributor to children’s physical activity, the study surprisingly revealed that outdoor play was a more consistent predictor of children meeting physical activity requirements.
  •       Team sports: A total of 70.1% of children participated in at least one sports team in the past 12 months, and 46.4% participated in other organized physical activities. A higher percentage of girls than boys reported participating in zero sports teams, and a lower percentage of girls reported participating in three or more sports teams.
  •       Socioeconomic barriers: Children from schools with higher economic disadvantage met physical activity guidelines on fewer days compared with children from school with lower economic disadvantage. The cost of participating in organized sports was identified as a prohibitive factor for many families, underscoring the need for more accessible and affordable physical activity programs.

Pfledderer hopes to deepen his research by eventually incorporating accelerometer data and examining seasonal weather patterns that could impact children’s physical activity. He also wants to study the impact of living in urban versus rural areas on children’s activity levels.  

“Despite the presence of numerous high-quality interventions, the impact on children’s physical activity levels remains limited,” Pfledderer said. “With Texas ranking 10th for childhood obesity rates and home to nearly 7.5 million children, the need for more informative, large-scale research in this region of the United States is critical.”  

The Texas Department of State Health Services funded the study with the Title V Maternal and Child Health Block Grant to Texas, the CDC, and the Michael andSusan Dell Foundation through the Michael andSusan Dell Center for Healthy Living.

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