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Can we modulate physical activity in children?

No

Abstract

Intuition tells us that physical activity is central to weight reduction in obese children. Evidence, on the other hand, suggests that increases in physical activity are difficult to achieve in the short term, and may not be possible in the long term. One explanation could be an ‘activitystat’, a feedback loop in the child's brain that controls physical activity according to a set point. This brief article, which argues that it may not be possible to modulate the activity of children, reviews the principles of feedback control as they apply to physical activity, discusses evidence for its central control, and demonstrates how a physical activity control loop might operate to defend the set point. Studies restricted to objective measurement suggest that the physical activity of children varies in a systematic, rather than random manner. It varies little from environment to environment, from year to year or from place to place. Where children undertake more activity at one time of day, they appear to compensate at another. Systematic variation of this kind implies control, and the control of physical activity appears to lie with the child, not with his environment. Perturbation (temporary change in response to disturbance) during short-term physical activity interventions may be mistaken for modulation (permanent change in set point), a fundamentally different response. Perturbation lasts no longer than the disturbance that causes it, and there is little evidence that interventions raise activity long term, if at all.

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to the EarlyBird team who have generated compelling and sometimes challenging observations over the years, and particularly to Brad Metcalf, MSc, who has spent long hours debating the physical activity data and their interpretation. I am similarly indebted to the people who generously fund the EarlyBird Study—currently the Bright Futures Trust, Nestec, Peninsula Medical School, Kirby Laing Foundation, League of Friends and the Earlybird Diabetes Trust.

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Correspondence to T J Wilkin.

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Wilkin, T. Can we modulate physical activity in children?. Int J Obes 35, 1270–1276 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2011.163

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2011.163

Keywords

  • physical activity
  • activitystat
  • central control
  • modulation

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