Middle-aged couch potatoes ‘planted’ 30 years earlier

Parents should routinely switch off the TV and take young children out for a walk or some other exercise in order to increase their chances of growing up to be fit, healthy adults, new research suggests.

And if it isn’t feasible to go outside, children could perhaps be encouraged to play interactive video games that involve physical activity.

Researchers at University College London have reached these conclusions after comparing the TV viewing habits of more than 6,000 British people at age 10 and age 42.

The study revealed that children who watched a lot of TV at age 10 were much more likely to spend more than three hours a day in front of the screen at age 42 than those who had watched relatively little television in childhood.

Eighty-three per cent of the 1,546 cohort study members who reported watching more than three hours of TV at 42 had also watched TV “often” at age 10.

The study also showed that 42-year-olds who watched TV for at least three hours a day were more likely to be in only “fair” or “poor” health and to report that they were either overweight or obese.

They were also more likely to have had fathers who were overweight and in routine or manual jobs at the age 10 survey. The sons and daughters of manual workers were, in fact, twice as likely as managers’ children to watch more than three hours of TV a day at 42, even after their own educational qualifications had been taken into consideration.

The researchers analysed information collected by the British Cohort Study, which is following the lives of people born in England, Scotland and Wales in the same week of 1970. The cohort study is managed by the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

“The problems that we have identified are not experienced exclusively by working-class families,” Dr Mark Hamer, one of the UCL researchers, will tell the CLS research conference in London today (March 16).

“However, parents from a lower socio-occupational class are more likely to be physically active at work and may compensate for this by spending more time sitting down during their leisure hours. Their children may then model their mothers’ and fathers’ leisure activity patterns.

“It is important that children keep active. And if they can be encouraged to participate in sports, so much the better.”

Previous research has suggested that parental participation in physical activity may be a predictor of childhood activity levels. The UCL study is, however, believed to be the first to use a large, representative birth cohort to identify childhood factors that are associated with television viewing habits in middle age.

“Our work indicates that parents’ health-related behaviours may at least partly influence children’s TV viewing habits more than three decades later,” Dr Hamer says. “This has important implications for policy and practice.

“It suggests that interventions to reduce passive TV viewing time should target children and their parents. Such initiatives could not only help today’s children but help to reduce passive TV viewing in future generations.

“That could be extremely beneficial as research has also shown that TV viewing is associated with other health-risk behaviours, such as the consumption of energy-dense foods and cigarette smoking. Prolonged TV viewing has also been linked to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

The paper that will be presented at the CLS conference is “Childhood correlates of adult TV viewing time: a 32-year follow-up of the 1970 British Cohort Study”, by Lee Smith, Ben Gardner and Mark Hamer of UCL’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health. It will be published in a future issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Photo credit: clarkmaxwell