Over half of six-year-olds in UK meet physical activity targets

Children playing football outside
Over half of the children met the current UK recommended guidelines

Fifty-three percent of six-year-olds in Britain met the recommended daily guidelines for moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, according to a study carried out pre-pandemic by researchers at the University of Southampton and University of Cambridge.

Researchers from the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Centre at the University of Southampton and the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge found that just over half of the children (53%) met the current UK recommended guidelines, with boys being more likely to reach the target than girls (63% of boys vs 42% of girls).

Professor Keith Godfrey MBE, Professor of Epidemiology and Human Development at the University of Southampton said: “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.”

Physical activity is beneficial for our physical and mental health, but activity levels tend to decrease across childhood and adolescence. The research looked to investigate how much activity children do in their early primary school years.

The study provided 712 six-year-olds with Actiheart accelerometers, which measured their heart rate and movement. The children, who had been recruited as part of the ongoing Southampton Women’s Survey, wore these continually for an average of six days.

Current UK physical activity guidelines recommend that children and young people from ages 5 to 18 years complete an average of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (such as playing in the park or physical education) per day across the week.

For all children, it is also recommended that they keep to a minimum extended periods of sedentary behaviour (such as sitting watching TV).

Children sit and watch TV
Sedentary behaviour in children includes watching TV

Results from the study show that at age six, children were:

  • Sedentary for a daily average of more than five hours (316 minutes);
  • Engaged in over 7.5 hours (457 minutes) of low-level physical activity;
  • Engaged in 65 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

Dr Esther van Sluijs from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at Cambridge said: “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.”

Researchers also analysed activity levels by time of day and found girls engaged in less moderate-to-vigorous physical activity during the school day at age six.

Possible explanations are that girls wear skirts, which may make physical activity more challenging, or that they choose less active options during break times.

Children playing with hula hoops outside
Boys are more likely to meet recommended guidelines than girls

Data recorded over a longer period found that six-year-olds were:

  • More sedentary (on average, around 30 minutes per day more compared to when they were four);
  • Engaged in an additional seven minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

Dr Kathryn Hesketh from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at Cambridge added: “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.”

While based on detailed data collected up to 2012, evidence from national questionnaire based surveys is that children’s patterns of activity levels changed little in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, with widely recognised even lower rates of meeting the Chief Medical Officer guidelines during the pandemic.

The work was largely supported by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council and the results of the study are published today in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health.

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