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Study Tracks Childrens' Attitudes About Athletic Abilities

By Alfredo Flores
October 23, 2003

The Agricultural Research Service is participating in a Texas study of 900 middle-school students and their changing attitudes about their own athletic abilities. The Children's Nutrition Research Center (CNRC) in Houston, Texas, is leading the four-year, $1.2 million study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Increasingly, researchers believe that remaining physically active into adulthood is often determined by whether a person develops an "athletic identity" in childhood. Even the specific sport a child chooses can have an impact on whether he or she exercises later in life--and can even influence future risk for cardiovascular disease. Also, regular physical activity throughout life is crucial in maintaining a healthy body weight.

The biggest drop in children's physical activities tends to occur as they move from middle school to high school, partly because they get busier and school-based team sports become more exclusive.

Cheryl B. Anderson, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, is leading this study. It will track seventh graders into eighth and ninth grades, and eighth graders into ninth and tenth grades in various middle schools in the Houston Independent School District and the Spring Branch School District in suburban Houston.

About twenty percent of the sample, approximately 200 kids, will wear small activity monitors--the size of a watch face--24 hours a day for four days, to record their level of movement. These select students will wear monitors Thursday through Sunday in the fall of each year and keep a personal activity journal. Twice each year, all students will complete questionnaires on their physical activities, in addition to answering questionnaires on athletic identity.

Anderson has hypothesized that people keep exercising over time because they see themselves as being the types who do these things. In other words, being athletic, or exercising to be fit, becomes part of their identity.

The CNRC is operated by Baylor College of Medicine in cooperation with Texas Children's Hospital and ARS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.