OBJECTIVE: To examine whether body fat content in pre-pubertal children is influenced by physical activity related energy expenditure (AEE) and/or more qualitative aspects of physical activity. DESIGN: Cross-sectional study. SUBJECT: 101 pre-pubertal children were examined in Study 1: (age: 5.3 +/- 0.9 y; weight: 20.2 +/- 3.6 kg). In Study 2: 68 of the original children were re-examined (age: 6.3 +/- 0.9 y; weight: 23.6 +/- 5.0 y). MEASUREMENT: Fat mass (FM) and fat free mass (FFM) were determined by bioelectrical resistance and skinfolds; AEE was estimated from the difference between total energy expenditure (TEE) by doubly labeled water and post-prandial resting energy expenditure (REE) by indirect calorimetry; qualitative information on activity was derived by questionnaire. RESULTS: AEE was significantly correlated with FFM (r = 0.32 in both Studies) and body weight (r = 0.28 in Study 1; r = 0.29 in Study 2), but not FM. There were no significant relationships between AEE and any of the variables from the activity questionnaire in children (including TV time, playing time, and an accumulated activity index in h/week). After adjusting for FFM, age, and gender, FM was inversely related to activity time in h/week (partial r = -0.24 in Study 1; partial r = -0.32 in Study 2) but not AEE (P > 0.5). CONCLUSION: After adjusting for FFM, age, and gender, a small portion of the variance in body fat mass in children (approximately 10%) is explained by time devoted to recreational activity, whereas none of the variance is explained by the combined daily energy expenditure related to physical activity.