The Pitter Patter of Little Feet May Keep Parents’ Feet From Doing the Same

Issue Date: 
August 22, 2007


                                           Ethan Hull 

Prospective Parents: Think you’ll be more active once you have a toddler to chase around?

Pitt PhD candidate Ethan Hull has got news for you.

Hull’s research has found that once a baby enters the picture, the time his or her parents spend on physical activity dwindles.

His first-of-its-kind study is part of a 17-year longitudinal study led by his adviser, Deborah Aaron, a professor in the Pitt School of Education’s health and physical activity department. Aaron’s study—the longest of its kind in the United States—began in 1990 with a group of 1,245 adolescents; it is examining physical activity during the transition from adolescence to young adulthood.

Tracking 525 study participants over two years, Hull found that married individuals who remained childless lost only a half hour of physical activity per week, on average, while those who had children lost an average of three-and-a-half hours.

Hull’s study was covered by The New York Times, WebMD,, and other media outlets worldwide in May.

Pitt Chronicle staff writer Patricia Lomando White interviewed Hull recently.

PITT CHRONICLE: What is the goal of your research?

HULL: We thought that when people married, physical activity would increase because they might start up an activity that the other person does. But our initial results showed that physical activity does not appreciably change with marriage.

Knowing that physical activity decreases over time, what we needed to do was target those factors that decrease it the most. One of the big changes is becoming a parent.

We also know that when your physical activity decreases or stops, it is hard to start it up again. I’m interested in examining how we can keep people physically active even in the midst of life changes such as having a child.

The New York Times’ report on your study noted that many people have an all-or-nothing attitude about exercise. Did you find that to be the case?

Dealing with behavior-change programs and being in the health and physical activity realm for about five years now, I know that there are individuals out there who feel it’s all or nothing—“If I don’t get to exercise for 45 minutes, then I’ve failed and I’m not going to do anything.

We have enough research to suggest a 10 to 15-minute bout of exercise several times a day is just as effective as a 30 to 45-minute bout at one time. Take the stairs. A little bit of exercise is better than quitting.

Do you think people are using parenthood as an excuse for not exercising, or don’t they know how to adjust to the change?

Well, that’s become a subsequent question. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We figured that a person’s focus in life would change, that priorities would change. It’s more about the child and the fact that [child-rearing] responsibility outweighs everything else.

After realizing that parenthood has a big impact on physical activity, we have to ask questions about thought processes. Are parents using the child as an excuse because they don’t really like physical activity in the first place? What is really behind this?

We’ve opened up a little box that shows that we have plenty more looking to do.

How can couples with children find time to exercise?

The first thing is, new parents need to be aware that they are at risk of decreasing their own activity level and health status as a result becoming a parent. Once aware, they have a better chance of preparing to stay active.

However, a new parent can’t just go out for a half hour and let the baby sleep. If you can’t take the child with you while you are physically active, then you need a support network—family members or friends or a nanny who can watch the child while you try to stay healthy. Once the child is old enough, there are baby wraps, bike carriers, and jogging strollers that can enable you to take the child with you as you exercise.