New research by University College London’s Institute of Child Health has found half of all UK seven-year-olds do not do enough exercise, with girls far less active than boys. Experts fear the UK will face an inactivity time bomb unless action is taken to motivate children to be more active.
The results come from the largest UK-wide scientific analysis of primary school children’s activity. Researchers recorded the activity of 6,500 youngsters for a week and found just 51% of the children they monitored achieved the recommended hour of physical activity each day. For girls, the figure was just 38% (one in three girls), compared with 63% of boys (almost two in three boys).
Each child wore an accelerometer, a gadget that measures both the duration and intensity of exercise. Experts were able to record more than 36,000 days of data based on the children wearing the accelerometer for at least 10 hours per day over the course of a week. The research found half of the group spent more than six hours being sedentary each day, though researchers acknowledged some of this time would be spent in class.
The study, published in the online journal BMJ Open, found levels of activity also varied among ethnic groups and geographical areas. For example, children of Indian origin and those living in Northern Ireland were among the least physically active, with only 43% achieving the recommended levels, compared to 53% in Scotland.
We need to really think about how we are reaching out to girls. The school playground is an important starting point, often you will find it dominated by boys playing football.
However, the most marked and alarming difference was the contrast in activity levels between girls and boys. Researchers said the results suggest there needs to be a focus on making sport and other physical activities more appealing to girls.
“There is a big yawning gap between girls and boys,” said Professor Carol Dezateux, one of the lead authors of the study. “We need to really think about how we are reaching out to girls. The school playground is an important starting point, often you will find it dominated by boys playing football.”
Professor Dezateux also expressed concern about the level of activity across the board, adding: “the findings are particularly worrying because seven-year-olds are likely to become less active as they get older, not more.”
Children can achieve the recommended hour of daily physical activity by taking part in moderate or vigorous activities. This can include brisk walking, cycling, dancing, playing football and running.
While school sports are a vital part of motivating children to be more active, parental input is also crucial. Young children today face many distractions and reasons to be sedentary including computer games, apps and smartphones. Making physical activity a normal part of a child’s daily life and finding activities that engage your child are two great ways to make a difference. Parents who regularly exercise also set an excellent example. Research has previously shown parents who keep fit tend to have more active children.
As the new school year looms, experts suggest it is the perfect time for parents to start making healthy changes to their child’s daily routine such as swapping short car journeys or bus journeys with walking or riding a scooter to school.