NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Children who immigrate to the U.S. seem to exercise less and participate in fewer sports than their U.S.-born peers, according to a government study.

In a national study of more than 68,000 children between the ages of 6 and 17, researchers found that immigrant children were generally less physically active than those born in the U.S.

Among Hispanic immigrant children, for example, 22 percent were sedentary, versus 9.5 percent of white U.S.-born children. However, Hispanic children who were born in the U.S. and had U.S.-born parents were more likely to be regularly active; 68 percent reported regular exercise, while just under 15 percent were sedentary.

Among immigrant children of all ethnicities, more than one-third were not meeting the exercise levels recommended for children and teens, the study found.

The researchers, led by Dr. Gopal K. Singh of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, report the findings in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Past studies, the researchers note, have shown that immigrants to the U.S. often have certain “health advantages” over natives that tend to fade as they become more assimilated: traditional diets are replaced by fast food, leisure time is increasingly devoted to TV and computers.

The reverse seems to be true when it comes to physical activity. Research has suggested that immigrant adults tend to exercise more as they become more acculturated.

A similar pattern emerged in the current study. Singh’s team found that rates of inactivity were highest among children who were foreign- born or had two foreign-born parents (18 percent and 15 percent, respectively); but children with one foreign-born parent were similar to children whose parents were both born in the U.S. (between 10 percent and 11 percent were inactive).

In addition, more than half of children who were foreign-born or had two foreign-born parents participated in no organized sports. That compared with roughly 40 percent of children with two U.S.-born parents, and 37 percent of children with one foreign-born parent.

Immigrant children were less likely to be active or participate in sports even when the researchers weighed factors like family income.

This, they say, suggests that cultural norms at least partly explain the difference in exercise levels. Immigrant parents may also want their children to focus more on schoolwork and language development than sports, the researchers note.

However, Singh’s team writes, the findings suggest a need to encourage children from immigrant families to be more physically active.

“Given the health benefits of physical activity,” the researchers write, “continued higher physical inactivity and lower activity levels in immigrant children are likely to reduce their overall health advantage over US-born populations during adulthood.”

SOURCE: Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, August 2008.