Fitness tracker supports healthy childhood behavior

Jul 27, 2018 12:00 PM

Author: Timothy Brusseau

Physically inactive kids may miss out on a healthy future. As primary schools become increasingly academic-oriented, learning environments become increasingly static and technology-based. Less emphasis on recess and active playtime for children in school could have potentially dangerous consequences.

A recent study on the prevalence of obesity in U.S. children published in Pediatrics found “a significant increase in severe obesity among children aged 2 to 5 years.” Children are especially at risk of developing unhealthy habits that can last a lifetime. If a parent limits playtime and extracurricular activities, the child is likely to be less active.

Being active helps kids focus, it helps with behavior, and it helps them perform better academically. Children who are physically active outperform their physically inactive peers both in the classroom and out of it. In the face of mounting evidence of the health consequences of an inactive lifestyle, school administrators might consider doing more to promote physical activity in a school setting.

Ideally, preschool-aged children should be receiving 15 minutes of physical activity every hour. “We spend more and more time on the academic aspects… and once [children] move into elementary school, we’re farther away from that fifteen minutes [of activity],” said Timothy Brusseau, PhD, Director of Physical Activity Research Laboratory and associate professor of Health-Kinesiology and Recreation at University of Utah Health.

This concerning trend prompted researchers at the U of U College of Health to study how patterns of physical activity and sedentary behaviors in preschool-aged children can be tracked objectively. Authors Wonwoo Byun, PhD, Youngwon Kim, PhD, and Brusseau  compared the accuracy of Fitbit Flex activity tracker — one of the most popular activity trackers available in consumer market — against the ActiGraph GT3X+ accelerometer which is currently known as the gold standard for physical activity measurement.  

More specifically, this study evaluated the accuracy of the Fitbit Flex for assessing activity levels in terms of light, moderate, and vigorous in preschoolers. Light being anything that isn’t stationary; moderate is walking and jogging; and vigorous is running and playing on monkey bars. Researchers found that the Fitbit Flex is as accurate as the ActiGraph Accelerometer, indicating that the Fitbit Flex presents a more cost-effective alternative that successfully captures the overall picture of physical activity. When taken into context with the growing public health crisis of childhood obesity, the findings reported in this study suggest the necessity of keeping track of physical and sedentary behavior in preschoolers.

“Considering the observed accuracy of the Fitbit and its potential for being used as a tool for promoting physical activity,” said Byun, Assistant Professor in Health, Kinesiology, and Recreation at the U of U College of Health and lead author on the study, “we plan to explore the feasibility and the effectiveness of interventions utilizing the Fitbit as a major component for increasing physical activity in children and youth.”

Physical activity is key to good health and well-being; it can help kids maintain a healthy weight, improve mental health, and build bone and muscle strength.  “Physical activity peaks societally around 11 years old,” Brusseau said. “We need to make sure that physical activity is enjoyable and fun for the kids too.” Brusseau believes learning how to ride a bike and learning how to read a book are crucial for healthy development and should be emphasized equally.

“Little kids should play, they should run around and play.”

It’s as simple as that.

Consistent physical activity reduces the risk of developing diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and metabolic disorders. Being active has also been shown to lower the risk of depression and certain cancers. Much like a poor diet, prolonged levels of inactivity have been suggested to pose a threat to living a healthy life.

The global prevalence of childhood obesity surely is cause for concern, not only for children and their parents but for the entire landscape of healthcare. Dr. Brusseau believes that encouraging a positive attitude toward physical activity in children as young as three years old will ultimately set them up for success to go on and live happier, healthier lives.

“Physical activity tracks throughout the lifespan, so if we can develop patterns of physical activity in preschool and elementary school we’re setting them up for success,” Brusseau said. “It would be great if we could just let kids be active and wiggle and do their thing.”

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