AKRON, Ohio — The kid who never gets the ball tossed to him on the playground could be more likely to pass on any type of exercise.
A study led by a Kent State University researcher has found that children who were ostracized during a virtual ball-toss computer game were subsequently less physically active.
These findings — published recently in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ professional journal Pediatrics — could help shed light on contributing factors and potential solutions for the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic.
“Ostracism appears to cause a reduction in physical activity,” said study co-author Jacob Barkley, an assistant professor in exercise science at Kent State. “It could create a scenario where if you’re an overweight or obese child, that ostracism could reduce your physical activity. As you get more ostracized, you get heavier, you get more ostracized because you got heavier and things get worse and worse.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of children and adolescents are overweight.
Barkley got the idea for the study while watching his three sons, ages 3 to 7, playing in their backyard.
“I noticed when friends came over, the intensity of their activity increased dramatically,” he said. “After seeing that, I went and looked at the literature in terms of peer influence and physical activity behavior.”
Barkley found other studies showing a link between ostracism or bullying and a decline in physical activity. But previous research didn’t show a clear cause and effect.
For example, one study determined that children who felt teased verbally or physically were less likely to be active and more likely to be overweight, Barkley said. “But does this peer victimization cause them to be less active, or (does) the fact that they’re less active cause victimization?”
In his study, Barkley and his colleagues observed 19 boys and girls ages 8 to 12 who completed two experimental sessions at Kent State.
During one session, children playing a ball-toss computer game received the ball one-third of the time. During the other, the computer was programmed to exclude the children from receiving the ball most of the time.
After playing the computer games, the participants were taken to a gym, where they were allowed to choose sedentary or physical activities.
When they were excluded by the computer game, the study participants spent 41 percent more time with sedentary activities, such as reading books, coloring or playing matching games, the study found. When the children were included in the computer game, their physical activity level in the gym was 22 percent higher.
“I think it’s really important that children have positive peer interaction in their life,” Barkley said.
Barkley is conducting follow-up research exploring whether positive peer interaction encourages physical activity.
The link between emotions and obesity is definitely strong, said Amy Stanford, a pediatric nurse practitioner in the Sports Medicine Center at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Stanford works with the hospital’s Future Fitness Clinic, which provides medical management for morbidly obese children. The hospital also runs Future Fitness Club programs at recreational centers throughout the region to encourage children to get active.
Patients in the clinic typically deal with a variety of self-image and self-esteem issues, she said.
“We try to encourage the kids to find things that they enjoy doing,” she said. “That doesn’t always mean it has to be in a group. If there are things that get them moving and physically active that they can do with their families or with a best friend or even by themselves, we encourage that.”