Research shows link between physical activity and social skills in children

Increased leadership and empathy may reinforce healthy behaviors that can prevent obesity, future heart disease

Elizabeth A. Jackson, M.D., M.P.H.

ATLANTA -- Middle school children who are physically active are more likely to demonstrate good social skills, such as leadership and empathy, which can, in turn, influence healthy behaviors, according to research by the U-M Cardiovascular Center presented today at the American collegeof Cardiology's annual scientific session. 

While team sports and physical activity have been associated with improved self-esteem, better nutrition and less smoking and drug abuse among children, the present study suggests that fostering leadership skills and empathy in children may reinforce healthy lifestyle behaviors.

U-M researchers gathered physiological data (height, weight, blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol) and responses to questionnaires on diet, exercise, leadership and empathy from 709 sixth grade public school children. Children were then divided into tertiles by leadership and the three groups were compared with each other. Middle school children who scored highest in leadership skills were more physically active (≥ 20 min/day) on a weekly basis (4.71 days ± 2.11 days). These children were also apt to show high scores in empathy. Moderate exercise (≥ 30 min/day) and participation in team sports also correlated to higher leadership and empathy scores.

"We looked at reports of activity and participation in team sports, where leadership and empathy skills are frequently developed, to see if we could find differences in reported health behavior," says Elizabeth Jackson, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of internal medicine at University of Michigan Health System and a co-investigator on the study. "It seems that physical activity through team sports and exercise classes may have benefits beyond physical fitness. These findings suggest that children who develop leadership and empathy toward others are more likely to care about their own health, perhaps adopting life-long healthy behaviors that can prevent heart disease."

She adds that this research indicates that children can be empowered during a critical period of their development that they can make a difference in their own life.

"Health behaviors are tied to other behaviors, so we can consider schools an excellent place to help children start caring for themselves and others," Jackson says.

Further research is needed to gain a better understanding of the correlation between these social skills and healthy diet and exercise behaviors. This study stemmed from a program called Life in Action, which educates and empowers youth across North America to change themselves through healthy daily choices, an active lifestyle and social responsibility. The program is a partnership of Free The Children and The Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Foundation, a leading philanthropic organization dedicated to tackling the obesity epidemic in North America.

This study was funded, in part, by the University of Michigan, the Atkins Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Thompson Foundation.

The American College of Cardiology represents the majority of board certified cardiovascular care through education, research, promotion, development and application of standards and guidelines - and to influence health care policy. ACC.10 is the largest cardiovascular meeting, bringing together cardiologists and cardiovascular specialists to share the newest discoveries in treatment and prevention, while helping the ACC achieve its mission to address and improve issues in cardiovascular medicine.

Press release courtesy of the American College of Cardiology.

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