HELSINKI, Finland — It can sometimes seem like young children are now born with a smartphone in their hands. All the time youngsters spend sitting in front of a screen can raise their risk for obesity later on. Now, a new study by researchers in Finland finds getting about one hour of physical activity a day at age 11 can reverse the risk of obesity due to heavy digital usage at age 14.
A team from the University of Helsinki reports that 11 year-olds getting six hours of physical activity each week reduces their chances of being overweight three years later. Researchers note that obesity is one of the most significant health challenges facing children globally.
Study authors investigated the link between using digital devices during adolescence and weight gain. The study involved over 4,600 children from the Finnish Health in Teens (Fin-HIT) study who reported on their own levels of physical activity and sedentary tech use throughout the review.
The Finnish team also accounted for factors such as each child’s diet, the amount of sleep they get, and the amount of digital media they use. Even after accounting for these variables, the team discovered that physical activity can protect against weight gain due to sedentary activities like too much screen time.
Specifically, children getting less than six hours of physical activity a week were more likely to be overweight by age 14. However, those reporting that they stay active for more than six hours did not see weight gain due to digital media overuse.
Any activity is better than no activity
“The effect of physical activity on the association between digital media use and being overweight has not been extensively investigated in follow-up studies so far,” says postdoctoral researcher Elina Engberg in a university release.
Despite the findings, researchers did not determine exactly how much sedentary digital media use contributes to weight gain during childhood. The team adds they also need to examine what kinds of physical activity helps prevent obesity. In this report, the children did not specify what they were doing, just that they were active after school. For now, researchers say whatever you can do to keep kids moving and not sitting in front of a screen all day will help them avoid obesity later.
“A good rule of thumb is to adhere to the physical activity guidelines for children and adolescents, according to which school-aged children and adolescents should be physically active in a versatile, brisk and strenuous manner for at least 60 minutes a day in a way that suits the individual, considering their age,” Engberg concludes.
The findings appear in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.