Children who have been criticized for their physical skills, chosen last and ridiculed seem to avoid physical activity, perhaps because from previous experience they figure it's punishing and they'll stay on the sidelines. – Chad D. Jensen

When kids are bullied during physical activities like PE classes and sports, they tend to withdraw from being physically active — not just in class, but in general. A year later, kids who are picked on are less active, according to a study led by BYU researchers.

That's true of both overweight and healthy-weight kids, the study found. The research is published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.

The research touches on two different factors in child well-being that concern experts. First, physical activity — or its lack — and the resulting weight gain have serious ramifications for both present and future health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and others. Research suggests that only 8 percent of school-age children get the recommended one hour of physical activity a day that federal guidelines say they need. Obesity is considered by health officials to be a national epidemic that includes children.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Education's National Center on Educational Statistics noted that at least 13.5 million episodes of bullying were reported in 2011, ranging from insults to threats and physical harm. It's not a count of how many students were actually bullied, since some students were likely bullied in more than one way and other students probably never reported incidents, but it is suggestive.

Intrigued by earlier research that suggested kids who are bullied by peers may become more sedentary, the researchers in the BYU-led study decided to look at what happens when the bullying itself involves physical activity. "Kids may be teased about their physical skills, ostracized when teams are chosen for sports, or criticized for their physical appearance when they wear exercise clothing," said lead researcher Chad D. Jensen, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Brigham Young University.

Sitting it out

"Children who have been criticized for their physical skills, chosen last and ridiculed seem to avoid physical activity, perhaps because from previous experience they figure it's punishing and they'll stay on the sidelines," Jensen said.

The researchers asked 108 students from several Midwest grade schools questions that ranged from what their diets were like to how they were treated by peers. The research focused on a "constellation of physical, psychological, emotional and academic functioning," Jensen said.

Using two surveys, they asked about health and activities, feelings, whether the children had problems with other children and how they felt about and performed in school. They also asked about bullying, although they didn't call it that, measuring things like feeling put down and perceptions of how others see them, as well as how upset the child felt as a result of how he or she was treated.

They found that even a year later, children ages 9 to 12 who had been teased during physical activity were less active than those who had not been teased. The finding was especially true for healthy-weight kids a year later, he added. Overweight children who were teased experienced a decrease in their health-related quality of life, including physical, social and academic well-being.

Activity matters

"Children's early experiences with physical activity can influence their exercise habits well into adulthood," Jensen said. He cites the benefits of an active lifestyle: reduced risk for obesity, depression, diabetes, sleep problems and other physical and mental health issues.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics "Bright Futures" report notes that "physical activity is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle and must begin in infancy and extend throughout adulthood. Regular physical activity increases lean body mass, muscle and bone strength and promotes good physical health. It fosters psychological wellbeing, can increase self-esteem and capacity for learning and can help children and adolescents handle stress."

Jensen hopes the study will serve as a call to action. It highlights how important it is to prevent bullying in schools and on the playing field. "We encourage educators and other adult leaders to intervene if children are being teased during physical activity and to consider physical education classes and recess important domains for bullying prevention," he said.

The other researchers were Christopher C. Cushing of Oklahoma State University and Allison R. Elledge of University of Kansas.

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