Recently, I was scrolling through TikTok when I came across a sound bite where an individual was explaining that the role of parental support and encouragement in shaping a child’s behavior is well-established, and maternal exercise, in particular, has been linked to fostering a positive attitude towards physical activity. I reached out to our Chief Science Officer, Natalie Suazo, to see if she could help me verify these claims with peer-reviewed research and also determine if this was correlation or causation. Her findings are detailed below!
Role modeling: Parents tend to serve as examples, whether good or bad, for their children. How parents act sets a standard for their kids to emulate and follow. This means that children who observe their mothers engaging in regular physical activity or are more likely to mimic that behavior. The same can be said for teaching children healthy eating habits. When parents prioritize fitness and make it a part of their routine, it can positively influence their children’s attitudes and behaviors toward physical activity. Additionally, an active parent often fosters a home environment that provides more opportunities and resources for physical activities, making it more likely for children to engage in exercise. This can influence a child’s overall level of physical activity.
Parental support and encouragement: It is a relatively safe assumption that parents who are, or were active in their developing years, are more likely to encourage and seek out opportunities for their children to also engage in physical activities. Maternal exercise is often associated with a supportive home environment that emphasizes the importance of an active lifestyle. When parents prioritize their own fitness, they often create a home environment that emphasizes the importance of an active and healthy lifestyle, leading to greater support and motivation for their children’s participation in physical activities. This support can create a positive exercise culture within the family and increase children’s likelihood of adopting active behaviors.
Genetic and environmental factors: The interplay of genetic and environmental factors can significantly impact an individual’s propensity for physical activity. Studies have indicated that children may inherit genetic predispositions for physical activity from their parents, including their mothers. For example, your genetics may play a part in your aerobic abilities and coordination or even your muscular power and overall fitness. Environmental Factors has some overlap with the initial finding that role play will influence a child’s health and activity levels. This combination of genetic and environmental influences can influence a child’s overall level of physical activity.
Socioeconomic status: It is important to acknowledge the association between parental exercise habits and socioeconomic status. Families with higher socioeconomic status often have access to greater resources and opportunities for exercise, including youth sport camps, athletic clubs, and extra-curricular school activities. Each of these can influence the likelihood of both mothers and children engaging in physical activities and valuing ones health. However, irrespective of socioeconomic factors, instilling a culture of physical activity within the family remains a valuable approach to promote healthier habits.
While the research points to a positive link between maternal and child exercise habits, it is essential to recognize that physical activity behaviors are multifaceted. Individual preferences, influences from peers and school, and other familial factors all play significant roles in shaping a child’s engagement in physical activities. Therefore, understanding the broader context in which exercise habits develop is crucial for implementing effective strategies to promote a physically active lifestyle in children. Here is Natalie’s initial takeaway:
“Yes. Research does suggest a positive association between maternal exercise habits and the likelihood of their children engaging in physical activity. While it’s important to note that not all studies have reached the same conclusions, several investigations have shown a correlation between a mother’s exercise behavior and her children’s involvement in physical activity.”
In response to my follow-up question, Natalie provided the following information on with that caveat that it is crucial to understand that the above associations do not necessarily imply causation. Let’s break it down.
The phrase “correlation does not imply causation” emphasizes that we cannot automatically conclude a cause-and-effect relationship between two events or variables just because they are observed to be associated or correlated with each other. In other words, the fact that two things happen together or change together does not necessarily mean that one directly causes the other. In this scenario, that means that even though active children tend to have active parents, that does not automatically mean those children are physically active because of their mothers.
Correlation: The research indicates a correlation between maternal exercise and child exercise. This means that there is a statistical relationship between the two variables. In this case, the data suggest active moms are likelier to have active kids, and we can conclude that there is a correlation between the two.
Causation: Establishing causation would require conducting controlled experiments or longitudinal studies that specifically manipulate maternal exercise behavior and observe its direct impact on children’s exercise habits. Such studies would need to control for other influential factors and determine whether maternal exercise directly causes an increase in child exercise. These studies would be incredibly expensive, time intensive, and difficult to properly execute. Therefore, we cannot conclude that physically active children are that way because of their parents.
Most of the research in this area has relied on observational studies and surveys that examine associations between maternal exercise and child exercise behaviors. These studies assess the correlation between the two variables, but it becomes more challenging to establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship. It’s also important to consider that multiple factors, including genetic predispositions, environmental factors, outside support, and socioeconomic status, likely influence the relationship between maternal and child exercise behaviors. These factors can contribute to the observed correlation, but the exact causal mechanisms are not fully understood.
“Overall, while there is evidence supporting the claim that active moms are more likely to have active kids, it is challenging to establish a direct causal relationship. Still, the research is interesting, yes?”
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