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At a time when kids in Canada are getting woefully little exercise, researchers may have unlocked a simple secret to help children be more active: Pay attention to who their closest friends are because they can have a huge influence over whether your kid is out playing soccer or on a couch playing video games.

Sabina Gesell, a research assistant professor in pediatrics at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, and her colleagues tracked groups of friends aged 5 to 12 for a period of 12 weeks. The kids' physical activity was monitored by a device that recorded their muscle movements, much like a pedometer.

Turns out, the biggest influence over how much each child engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity was the activity level of their four to six closest friends. Peer pressure worked both ways: If you hang out with sedentary friends, you become more sedentary; if you're friends are more active, you too become more active.

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"We see evidence that the children are mirroring, emulating or adjusting to be similar to their friends," Prof. Gessell told Time. "And that's exciting because we saw meaningful changes in activity levels in 12 weeks."

Indeed, the children's activity levels were found to change by as much as 10 per cent as a result of their social circle.

It might be obvious to many parents that friends can have a large influence on their kids' behaviour, but the idea of "social contagion" may be an important one to harness in the fight against childhood obesity, Prof. Gesell said.

"None of the approaches to combatting obesity are really working now, and we need a new approach. The social environment does carry more power than we have given it credit for, so we should leverage that intentionally," she said.

Who do you think is a stronger influence for getting a child to have healthy habits: parents or their friends?

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