Only half of six-year-old children in the UK meet the recommended guidelines for daily physical activity, according to a study published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health.
We all know that physical activity is beneficial for mental and physical health, but activity levels tend to decrease as children reach adolescence. Current guidelines recommend that children and young people from 5 to 18 years old should do 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day during the week. It’s also suggested that they avoid extended periods of just sitting and watching TV or playing on the computer.
To investigate how much time primary school children actually spend exercising, a team of researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge and the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Centre at the University of Southampton, UK, recruited over 700 six-year-old children and gave them accelerometers to measure heart rate and movement. The children wore this device for six days.
Results showed that, on average, children were sedentary for more than 5 hours every day, engaged in low-level physical activity for 7 hours but only had about an hour of vigorous exercise. About half of all children met the current UK recommendations, with boys more likely to reach the target than girls.
“Using accelerometers, we were able to get a much better idea of how active children were, and we found that just over a half of six-year-olds were getting the recommended amount of physical activity. But this means that almost half of British children in this age group are not regularly active, which we know is important for their wellbeing and their performance at school,” said Dr. Esther van Sluijs from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at Cambridge.
Looking at specific times of the day, the team found that girls engaged in less vigorous activity during the school day. This could be because girls wear skirts, which makes physical activity harder, or maybe they naturally choose less active games during the break.
“These analyses indicate that new initiatives to promote physical activity must consider the lower activity levels in girls and at weekends. The time when children transition into formal schooling is an important opportunity to ensure a much higher proportion achieve recommended levels of activity,” said Professor Keith Godfrey from the University of Southampton.
Researchers also had access to data recorded when they were four years old for some children. In just two years, children began exercising less during the day, losing 30 minutes of mild physical activity. Still, curiously, they had more vigorous activity when they were six compared to when they were four years old.
“This is something of a double-edged sword: children appear to do more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity when they start formal schooling, which is really positive, but they also spend more time sedentary. This may in part be because of the structure of the school day, so we may want to look at ways to reduce sedentary time when children are younger, to prevent that behaviour becoming habitual,” concluded Dr. Kathryn Hesketh from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at Cambridge.
Hesketh KR, Brage S, Inskip HM, Crozier SR, Godfrey KM, Harvey NC, Cooper C, Van Sluijs EMF. Activity Behaviors in British 6-Year-Olds: Cross-Sectional Associations and Longitudinal Change During the School Transition. J Phys Act Health. 2022 Jul 21:1-8. doi: 10.1123/jpah.2021-0718.