New research suggests an effect method to help overweight or obese adolescents increase their daily physical activity is to encourage use of local parks and playgrounds.
In a pilot study, investigators from Massachusetts General Hospital found use of the everyday environment was a more sustainable method to increase physical activity than organized classes or sports programs.
Investigators found use of parks and playgrounds helped overweight and obese adolescents increase their physical activity for at least three to four months. The behavioral change was facilitated by personal coaching and use of various incentives for both teens and parents.
“There is an alarming rate of obesity in this country, and we know that most kids are not getting enough physical activity,” says Nicolas Oreskovic, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and lead author of the study.
“Past efforts have not been very successful in getting kids to increase their physical activity, but as far as we know, no one has tested whether using their ‘built environment’ — parks, playgrounds, walking paths they may pass by every day — could help increase daily activity.”
Beginning in the fall of 2013, researchers enrolled 60 adolescents ages 10 to 16 who were either overweight or obese. The teens were then randomly assigned to either the intervention group or a control group.
During a week prior to their first meeting with study staff, all participants wore both a GPS device, which recorded their location, and a research-quality activity monitor that measured any moderate-to-vigorous physical activity they engaged in.
At the first study meeting control participants received a handout outlining their current activity level, based on the recorded data, along with standard recommendations regarding diet and exercise.
Intervention group participants and a parent or guardian met with Oreskovic to discuss their physical activity during the recorded week and then reviewed a map showing their home, school and locations where they had traveled during the week.
They discussed specific locations and facilities in the area that participants could use to increase their physical activity and ways they might like to do so – skipping rope in a park, skateboarding at a skate park, using walking paths or even just sidewalks to walk to and from school.
Each participant set his or her own goal for a new physical activity to achieve two or three times a week.
During the study, intervention participants received weekly text or phone messages reminding them of their goal and were also offered an incentive to achieve their new physical activity goals. The incentive was a low-cost gift — such as a ball, frisbee or jump rope awarded upon increases in physical activity.
Participants wore the GPS and activity monitors for another week one month after the first study meeting and again two or three months later. Follow-up meetings were held after each recorded week, during which participants’ progress was reviewed.
If the activity goals had been met, participants and their families received small monetary rewards. All intervention group participants competed for a more valuable prize awarded to the one who had achieved the greatest increase in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity by the final meeting.
By the third study meeting, intervention group participants had increased their average daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity by 7.7 minutes, compared with half a minute for the control group. Overall, intervention group participants averaged 9.3 minutes more daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity than did control group participants (38 minutes versus 28.7 minutes).
The study also looked at how many participants in each group met national guidelines for adolescents to achieve 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. The intervention group increased from three to five participants meeting that goal, while the control group remained at only two.
Study participant Emma Forsyth, now 12, of Winthrop, Mass., enjoyed getting outdoors and being more active with her friends during the study. She took advantage of a local soccer field to increase her walking, and now has added basketball and softball to her regular activities. “I learned that it’s good to be active and healthy, and that it’s more fun to go outside and play than to sit inside and watch TV,” she says.
Her father Bill Forsyth adds, “Now whatever kind of activity we’re going to do, she automatically jumps right in and becomes involved. Many times, Emma didn’t need to go out and practice; but she did so all the same. As a parent, I’m really proud that this is something she wanted to do.”
Oreskovic comments, “Past physical activity interventions that utilized structured, sometimes artificial settings — such as school sports programs — have had very limited success because they are not easily integrated into the participant’s life and may not be sustainable. Once the study ends and the activity created for the study is no longer available, participants return to their usual habits and activities.
“Our program, in contrast, aimed to have adolescents increase their activity using existing, permanent infrastructure — which is free and available to anyone at any time — and participate in identifying activities that could be integrated into their daily lives and continued after the study ended,” he adds.
“And when participants learn to identify opportunities within their own neighborhoods, that’s a skill they can carry with them the rest of their lives and apply wherever they live — be it in Boston, Paris or Santiago.”
Study results will appear online in the Journal of Adolescent Health.