Kids’ instant access to screen-based technologies, such as a TVs, computers, video games, and smartphones, increases their likeliness to take part in sedentary activities, causing them to be inactive and spend little energy. These sedentary behaviors can increase biological markers for chronic diseases in children, regardless of physical activity levels. Children who take frequent breaks from sedentary activities can offset obesity risk, however, and stay healthy with just four minutes of intense activity, according to a new study.

Most children spend about three hours a day watching TV, but spend closer to between five and seven hours a day when other screen time activities are taken into account, according to Medline Plus. Children and teens should engage in entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day — granted it is high-quality content, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The time spent sitting and watching a screen is not being spent doing physically demanding activities, and can therefore lead to a higher risk of becoming obese if done excessively. Additionally, kids are exposed to TV commercials and other screen ads that may influence them to make less healthy food choices. Food ads targeted for kids usually involve products high in sugar, salt, or fats.

Canadian researchers sought to measure whether sedentary behavior, and breaks during these times, were associated with cardiometabolic risk — chances of having diabetes, heart disease, or stroke — in children with a family history of obesity. Data from 286 boys and 236 girls living in Quebec, with at least one biological parent with obesity were collected from 2005 to 2008, and analyzed in 2013 for the study. The researchers used an accelerometer to gather data and studied all breaks in sedentary behavior in the large cohort for one week.

Participants were tested for health risks that they might have, including waist circumference, body mass index, fasting insulin, fasting glucose, triglycerides, HDL-cholesterol, and C-reactive proteins, according to a news release. The duration spent at the computer and playing video games as well as watching television during the one week period was self-reported.

In the study, sedentary time or “still” time was defined as all minutes with an average activity count of less than 100 counts per minute. Physical activity was measured with a count of 100 to 2,296 counts per minute, and moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity (MVPA) was considered greater than 2,296 counts per minute. A sedentary break consisted of one or more consecutive minutes with less than 100 counts per minute. Sedentary breaks were measured by how many minutes they remained active.

The findings revealed sedentary breaks lasting one to four minutes were associated with less cardiometabolic risk and lower BMIs for both boys and girls. Breaks that lasted five to nine minutes were negatively associated with waist circumference in girls only, while breaks lasting zero to 14 minutes were positively associated with fasting glucose in girls, and BMI in boys.

"Increased screen time poses a persistent health risk for kids as a rule," said Travis Saunders, researcher at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, in the news release. "But what's also interesting in this study is that video-gaming was associated with higher risk scores for boys whereas television viewing was linked to higher risk scores for girls."

To their knowledge, the researchers wrote this is the first study to report a beneficial association between breaks in sedentary time and global cardiometabolic risk in children.

Healthy lifestyle initiatives that aim to decrease sedentary behavior in children, such as less screen time, can have a positive impact on the health issues that are associated with being overweight or obese. Frequent interruptions may yield a positive effect in children’s health in an era where the use of screen-based technologies are increasing every day.

In a similar study, time spent engaging in moderate to vigorous physical activity was found to be more important than time spent in sedentary activities, with regards to cardiometabolic health. This behavior encouraged participation in physical activity and reduced their screen time.

In an effort to reduce screen time, parents are recommended to suggest other activities, such as a family board game, puzzle, or simply going for a walk. Parents can decrease their own screen time to two hours a day so kids can follow by example.

For more way to decrease children’s screen time, click here.

Source: Chaput JP, Henderson M, Mathieu ME, et al. Associations of Sedentary Behavior, Sedentary Bouts and Breaks in Sedentary Time with Cardiometabolic Risk in Children with a Family History of Obesity. PLOS One. 2013.