Research shows children’s after-school activity declines with age

Have you ever wondered what kids do after school?

Findings from a recent study completed by Eric Wickel, associate professor of kinesiology and rehabilitative sciences, raise questions about this period of the day as youth transition from childhood to adolescence.

“I was concerned about physical activity among children,” said Wickel, who earned his doctorate in health and human performance from Iowa State University and has been teaching at TU for 10 years. “Many studies rely on cross-sectional designs to report activity and sedentary levels, but few are available to specifically examine longitudinal trends.”

Using data from the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, Wickel’s research compared levels of sedentary, light, moderate and vigorous physical activity between 3 and 10 p.m. among a group of 375 children at age 9 and then again at age 15. The findings, which are being published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, show a decline in moderate-to-vigorous activity. The decline was significantly greater among girls compared with boys and among overweight/obese youth compared with youth with normal body mass index.

“During a busy week, parents need to think creatively about ways to make activity fun. Importantly, research suggests that making a commitment as a family to adopt healthy behaviors is an important step toward healthy living,” said Wickel, an active runner.

His data was gathered objectively by accelerometers, which provide a better measure of activity patterns than pedometers and are free from the threat of recall bias associated with self-report.

“We need to be able to track people over time using objective assessment tools,” Wickel said. “The development study is a rich data set that includes demographic, interpersonal and environmental measures collected from birth to 15 years, which allows investigators to examine age-related patterns and report associations with health-related outcomes.”

Wickel said secondary studies that utilize existing data help answer questions about whether childhood behaviors have an impact on people later in life. “The more information we can gain from studying patterns and correlates of youth behavior, the more opportunity we can create for well-designed interventions,” Wickel said. “Promoting activity among children has to be a priority for both schools and parents. Research and education provide a starting point for that discussion.”

The father of two young children, Wickel next will examine whether physical activity in youngsters affects cognitive skills such as executive function and academic achievement during adolescence while accounting for biological and social factors.