More evidence has been published suggesting that children are not as physically active as they need to be and that their activity levels are actually falling over time. Covid has been a factor, of course: the new University of Bristol study indicates that children have been less active since Covid restrictions were eased. However, an earlier, pre-pandemic Bristol study found that there is a dramatic drop in children’s physical activity levels between the ages of six and 11. Meanwhile, the latest Active Lives survey from Sport England suggested that more than 12 million adults are currently inactive and that the overall figures “hide stark inequalities”. The evidence is stacking up that we are failing to meet the obesity challenge, potentially leading to a massive public health crisis in the future. We need to do much more to keep children active.
The newly published Bristol study – which involved children wearing accelerometers to measure the intensity of physical activity – found that by the end of 2021 less than a third of children were meeting the recommended guidelines of 60 minutes of physical activity daily and that levels of physical activity have fallen since the pandemic. For example, children aged between 10 and 11 were doing eight minutes less activity than before 2021.
The study also found that children were less active at the weekend than during the week and that there was a significant increase in sedentary time, with children spending 25 minutes longer being sedentary per day than previously during the week.
An earlier, pre-pandemic study by the university found that between the ages of six and 11 children lose on average more than an hour of exercise in the week, with an even greater fall on weekends.
Professor Russ Jago, who led the earlier (2019) study, said at the time:
Evaluating patterns of physical activity across childhood is an important way to identify key ages in which to intervene to change behaviour – and establish healthy habits for life.Professor Russ Jago, quoted here
These numbers prove that more needs be done to ensure children keep active as they approach adolescence. This isn’t about getting children to exercise more, but rather maintaining their activity levels.
Developing early intervention strategies that help children retain activity levels could include after-school physical activity programmes, focusing on participation and enjoyment in addition to popular sports – and a greater emphasis on promoting weekend activities.
Sadly, we have reached a position where – with respect to Professor Jago – it is now about doing more to ensure we keep children active.
Tackling obesity is a massive long-term challenge. Talk of a ticking time bomb is a cliché. But like many clichés, it contains a kernel of truth. An August 2021 study by University College, London indicated that about one in three middle-aged people have multiple chronic health issues such as recurrent back pain, mental health problems and high blood pressure. The research also showed the long-lasting links between childhood and adolescence and midlife health.
Unfortunately, studies like the ones cited here suggest that we are simply not doing enough to meet the obesity challenge. The University College, London study recommended action on health targeted at children and young people in order to improve the long-term health prospects of future generations. Such thinking resonates with the aims of Life-Based Learning — an approach to education and development for children and young people in which the life challenges that we all face, now and in the future, become the focus of a fully rounded life-based curriculum.
Tackling obesity – and promoting children’s physical health and wellbeing more generally – is one such challenge. We have argued recently that “we cannot continue as we are. Something more ambitious and radical is required. We need to rethink. We need to change our common frame of reference. We need to be proactive and long-term rather than reactive and short-term. And we need to be much more inclusive.”
Image at the head of this article by 14995841 from Pixabay.