Inspired during his daily lunchtime walks by the
sight of parents sitting on playground benches, a U.S. researcher
has shown that moving the seating away from the area increased the
amount of exercise that parents and caregivers got as they watched
"For such an easy and inexpensive change, we were able to shift many
adults from sitting to standing and that alone promotes health,"
said lead author James Roemmich, a supervisory research physiologist
at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
The study, published in the journal Preventive Medicine, focused on
a single playground in Grand Forks, where parents tended to
congregate at eight picnic tables with benches and watch their
children. The researchers observed playground activity by adults and
children for a week with the benches present, and for another week
after they were taken away, then again for a week when the benches
When the benches were removed, the adults were as much as 23 times
more likely to engage in moderate to vigorous activity, the
With benches gone, the parents were "walking around following their
child, watching them play, swinging or pushing children on swings,
walking around and socializing with other parents, walking through
the splash pad to cool off, playing with the kids/lifting kids up to
monkey bars and other play equipment," Roemmich told Reuters Health
in an email. "A couple times they brought a Frisbee or football and
threw them around with the kids."
Removing the benches did not affect the amount of time adults were
willing to let the children stay and play at the park, the
researchers point out in their report.
They also found that removing the benches did not make the children
"That's because children are already very active when they're at the
playground, running from swings to slides, climbing and jumping,"
Roemmich said. "Increasing their activity level is more
The one thing that did tend to increase children's activity level,
Roemmich said, was if they arrived at the park with a friend or
sibling. That "social facilitation," he said, upped kids' activity
level because much active play typically requires partners.
Research also suggests that children play more if their parents
aren't hovering too close, Roemmich notes. "I'm not advocating
leaving kids at the playground unsupervised, just give them some
space," he said.
The 17-acre park where the study was conducted is across the street
from Roemmich's office, so he passed by it daily.
"I saw a terrific playground there, and I noticed that the parents
or adult caregivers were sitting while kids were playing," he said.
"I thought, 'Wow, what a terrific opportunity for parents not to be
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Roemmich said the study is an example of a "micro-environmental"
change — a small alteration that can sometimes change behavior.
Other micro-environmental changes include painting portions of the
playground in bright colors and adding playground equipment — both
of which have been shown to increase activity levels in children.
James Sallis, a professor of family and preventive medicine at
the University of California, San Diego, said one of the virtues of
this study is that "it could really be done in virtually any park or
Sallis, who was not connected with the study, is director of Active
Living Research, an organization that supports research designed to
promote physical activity in children and families.
"There's a lot of applicability," Sallis said, noting that removing
benches is easy and inexpensive. "People are always looking for
something you can do that's cheap."
"You could argue that it's just a little bit of activity," he said.
"But that's how we got to be an inactive society to begin with, with
a million tiny little decisions like that. Who decided you needed
benches in every playground?"
When asked if parents objected to the removal of the benches
during the study, Roemmich said the parks department got "three or
four complaint calls" from parents unhappy with the removal of the
benches. "But once it was explained that it was a study, they were
okay with it," he said.
Sallis said he wishes the study had gone a step further and looked
at whether removing the benches facilitated social activity among
"People tend to go to their own separate seat," he said. "But if
you're standing up and wandering around, you may be more likely to
have some social interaction — that could be an additional benefit,"
Sallis also suggested that a next step to encourage adult activity
might be to put adult exercise equipment on the periphery of the
Preventive Medicine, online Feb/ 4, 2014.
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