Kinesiology Lecturer Awarded for Research on Childhood Obesity

Sheila Kelly grew up in a family that encouraged sports over video games and outdoor activities over television. As a child, she played soccer, basketball and softball, and as an adult, she worked as a group exercise instructor and personal trainer while pursuing her Ph.D. in Kinesiology at Michigan State University.

As someone who grew up understanding the importance of healthy living, Kelly always wondered why some children grow up to be active and others don’t. So she made it the subject of her 2011 Ph.D. dissertation: “The Relationship Among Motor Skill Development, Aerobic Capacity, Body Composition and Perceived Competence of Fourth Grade School Children.” The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) recently selected Kelly’s research out of a pool of national applicants for having the greatest potential to contribute to the knowledge of sport psychology.

“Often we have the physical ability and opportunity to be active, but we’re not,” says Kelly, a lecturer in the Department of Kinesiology and Recreation Administration. “I’ve always been interested in why some people are sedentary and others aren’t. The mental side of physical activity is huge.”

Although many things contribute to childhood obesity, Kelly examined a few important factors. She examined the fitness levels and perceived competence of 137 Michigan fourth graders. Over several weeks, she measured their aerobic capacity, motor skills and Body Mass Index, or BMI.

Then, she asked the students to rate their own abilities. She administered a test called the Self Perception Profile for Children (SPPC), which asks children to identify with either positive or negative statements about their self-worth, peer acceptance, physical appearance, behavior and academic and athletic abilities. The test might present a student with the following sentence: “Some kids feel they are very good at their school work, while other kids worry about whether they can do the school work assigned to them,” and ask them which half of the sentence describes them better. It’s frequently used to measure a child’s perception of himself, as opposed to his actual ability.

Kelly used regression analysis to analyze the data. In the past, researchers have found that children with good locomotor skills—like hopping and running—have higher actual and perceived physical ability. Kelly’s findings took that research a step further. She found that well-developed object-control skills like throwing, catching and dribbling might be just as important as locomotor skills in predicting physical activity in childhood and beyond.

She also found that children who perceive themselves as academically competent have lower BMIs.

“There is a huge link between academic achievement and physical activity but it’s a chicken and an egg type scenario,” Kelly says. “Do students with low perceived competence not participate in physical activity because they perceive themselves as less competent or is it the other way around?”

When it comes to educating children, adults should encourage all aspects of healthy living, Kelly says. “Parents, teachers, and coaches should encourage children to strive for a healthy BMI, increase their aerobic capacity and engage in fundamental motor skill development,” says Kelly. They should also emphasize object-control skills.

Researchers have long studied the reasons behind America’s childhood obesity epidemic. Some point to the decreased emphasis on physical education classes in elementary, middle and high school.

“Oftentimes P.E. is the first program to be cut when schools are facing budget cuts,” Kelly says. “It’s unfortunate that it’s considered an extra-curricular activity when it should be just as important as Math or English.”

Kelly is teaching sport and exercise psychology, sport sociology and kinesiology this spring. She received NASPE’s Sport and Exercise Psychology Dissertation award and will present her research March 13-15 at a ceremony in Boston, Mass.