Mothers Working and Their Children's Physical Activity

Ryan Johnson and Tammy Allen recently completed a study examining the association among employed mothers' work characteristics, physical activity levels, and their child's health. The full citation is below. 

They drew from strain-based theories, which suggest that as strain in various activities increases, desired outcomes will decrease. In this case, strain-based job demands include the level of uncertainty at work and the lack of decision making attitude. Time-based strain was also considered, as measured by the total number of hours worked per week. The authors suspected that as strain-based demands increased, the levels of physical activity would decline. There is also some evidence that mothers' physical activity patterns influence those of their children: the more the parent exercises, the more the child will, too. The authors examined this possibility. Finally, they included child health as the final outcome, thinking that as physical activity decreased, so too would the child's physical well-being. 

The authors collected questionnaire data from thousands of families, and were able to sort through the data to match mothers and their children. This resulted in 359 mother-child groups (167 girls and 192 boys). In conducting their analyses, they were able to account for various factors that might otherwise impact the relationships. These include the gender of the child, as well as the educational attainment and income of the mother. As these two factors increase, so is the likelihood that the women in the study will exercise and have healthy, active children. Thus, by accounting for these factors, the authors were able to focus specifically on the influence of work. 

The authors found that job-based strain negatively affected the mothers' physical activity levels. Further, the more mothers exercised, the more their children did, too. These activity levels benefited their children's overall health.

While these findings might seem straight-forward and intuitive, they are novel in that the study is among the first to show work characteristics affect a family's physical activity and health. The authors note implications for organizations, including the notion that they "might benefit from expanding health and wellness programs and altering policies to target not only employees, but their entire families" (p. 154). In addition, these findings suggest (to me, at least) that autonomy in the work environment is not only associated with greater employee satisfaction and engagement (as shown in a number of other studies), but also improved health outside the workplace. As all of these factors influence individual well-being and organizational effectiveness, reducing job-based strain is essential. 


Johnson, R. C., & Allen, T. D. (2013). Examining the links between mothers' work experiences, physical activity, and child health. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98, 148-157.