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Soc Sci Med. 2011 Jul;73(1):6-12. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.04.018. Epub 2011 May 18.

School-based friendship networks and children's physical activity: A spatial analytical approach.

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Centre for Exercise, Nutrition & Health, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TP, UK.


Despite the known health benefits, the majority of children do not meet physical activity guidelines, with past interventions to increase physical activity yielding little success. Social and friendship networks have been shown to influence obesity, smoking and academic achievement, and peer-led interventions have successfully reduced the uptake of adolescent smoking. However, the role of social networks on physical activity is not clear. This paper investigates the extent to which friendship networks influence children's physical activity, and attempts to quantify the association using spatial analytical techniques to account for the social influence. Physical activity data were collected for 986 children, aged 10-11 years old, from 40 schools in Bristol, UK. Data from 559 children were used for analysis. Mean accelerometer counts per minute (CPM) and mean minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day (MVPA) were calculated as objective measures of physical activity. Children nominated up to 4 school-friends, and school-based friendship networks were constructed from these nominations. Networks were tested to assess whether physical activity showed spatial dependence (in terms of social proximity in social space) using Moran's I statistic. Spatial autoregressive modelling was then used to assess the extent of spatial dependence, whilst controlling for other known predictors of physical activity. This model was compared with linear regression models for improvement in goodness-of-fit. Results indicated spatial autocorrelation of both mean MVPA (I = .346) and mean CPM (I = .284) in the data, indicating that children clustered in friendship groups with similar activity levels. Spatial autoregressive modelling of mean MVPA concurred that spatial dependence was present (ρ = .26, p < .001), and improved model fit by 31% on the linear regression model. These results demonstrate an association between physical activity levels of children and their school-friends, and indicate that spatial modelling is an informative method for incorporating the influence of school social structure into physical activity analysis.

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