The study, led by researchers from Cambridge and Southampton universities, analysed more than 500 mothers and their four-year-olds, and established a direct link between physical activity levels in mothers and their children.
The study concluded that policies to improve children’s health should be aimed at mothers, as children are not ‘naturally active’, and are reliant on parents to develop good exercise habits in early life.
The research, published in American journal Pediatrics, also showed that just 53 per cent of mothers took part in 30 minutes of physical activity at least once a week.
The Government recommends 150 minutes a week of at least ‘moderate intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking.
Researchers assessed their subjects using lightweight activity monitors, which mothers and children wore for a week, including when sleeping and taking part in water-based activities.
The monitors feature a combined accelerometer and heart rate monitor, allowing for a higher degree of accuracy than with self-assessment reports, which are commonly used in similar research.
The research was led by Kathryn Hesketh, now a research associate at the Institute of Child Health at University College London.
She said, ‘We saw a direct, positive association between physical activity in children and their mothers – the more activity a mother did, the more active her child. Although it is not possible to tell from this study whether active children were making their mothers run around after them, it is likely that activity in one of the pair influences activity in the other.’
According to the study, for every minute of moderate-to-vigorous activity a mother engaged in, her child was more likely to engage in 10 per cent more of the same level of activity.
Ms Hesketh added, ‘Such small minute-by-minute differences may therefore represent a non-trivial amount of activity over the course of a week, month and year.’
Factors which influenced maternal activity levels included the level of education the mother had received, whether the child had siblings, and whether the father was present at home.
The study’s authors called for more to be done to promote the importance of high activity levels in both mothers and children.
‘There are many competing priorities for new parents and making time to be active may not always be top of the list,’ Ms Hesketh said. ‘However, small increases in maternal activity levels may lead to benefits for mothers and children. And if activity in mothers and children can be encouraged or incorporated into daily activities, so that more time is spent moving, activity levels are likely to increase in both. In return, this is likely to have long-term health benefits for both.’