Indoor play keeps child obesity away, new research shows

Organized sports are not the only activities that benefit children’s health, according to PERFORM Centre researcher Caroline Fitzpatrick.

Montreal, November 13 - An active child is, generally speaking, a healthy child. And kids don’t need a whole lot to be active.

A new study in the American Journal of Health Promotion suggests that children who have access to indoor play equipment show substantial health benefits, including less weight gain, than children who do not.

“We were interested in seeing if just playing — being mildly active, without necessarily getting a high increase in heart rate — was good enough to have some kind of protective effort on children’s weight gain,” says lead author Dr. Caroline Fitzpatrick, a research member at Concordia’s PERFORM Centre and an assistant professor of social science at Université Ste-Anne in Nova Scotia. 

Using data from a large study led by her PERFORM Centre colleague and co-author Dr. Tracie Barnett, a researcher at Sainte-Justine and professor at INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier, Prof. Fitzpatrick and her colleagues analyzed 512 students considered at risk of obesity clustered in 296 Montreal-area elementary schools. The at-risk students had either one or two parents considered obese. 

They found that children enrolled in schools with the most varied indoor play environment had lower overall body fat and smaller waists than children at schools with the least varied environment.

“Looking at schools’ play equipment is a relatively new area of study, so we wanted to see, first of all, do meaningful differences exist among these schools?” she says.

Indeed they do. The schools were classified into four categories depending on the variety and the quality of indoor and outdoor equipment, which was scored by a trained kinesiologist.

“We found significant differences when we compared the schools where the kids had the least overall access to play equipment to the children that had a fair amount of access to outdoor equipment and the best access to indoor equipment.”

Schools, she adds, were an ideal environment to carry out this kind of study. The amount of time kids spend there means the school environment very likely plays a role in how they develop physically, including weight gain.

Exercise under pressure

However, cultural, social and other factors are cutting into the amount of time kids can spend being active, at school and at home.

Schools are devoting fewer hours in the day to physical activity, parents are increasingly worried about injuries, and fewer areas are being set aside as play spaces. Then there is the persistent attraction of screen-based technologies like television, smart phones and tablets that compete for a child’s time and attention.

The good news, says Fitzpatrick, is that providing tools for unstructured active play is relatively easy.

“Childhood obesity is obviously a combination of many factors,” she adds. “Some are genetic, some are psychological, some are within the family and some are in the community. But some of the environmental factors are easily modifiable: how much play equipment children have access to at school is something that’s easy to change, compared to air pollution, poverty or genetics. 

She also notes that investing in simple indoor play equipment like skateboards, hula-hoops, trampolines, unicycles, juggling pins, devil sticks and climbing walls could be highly cost-effective in offsetting long-term health problems. 

“Indoor play might be linked to decreased weight but it might also be reducing stress levels in children,” she says. “It might have some other positive benefits that we haven’t examined yet.” 

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Fonds de recherche du Québec—Santé helped fund this study. 

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