Dr Mark Pearce
A study by researchers from Newcastle University and the University of Strathclyde indicates that more needs to be done to encourage young children to be active. The research paper, published in the open access journal PLoS ONE
this week, highlights a number of factors which influence the amount and intensity of physical activity children partake in, from the age of their father to participation in after-school clubs.
There are numerous reports on teenage girls not thinking that sport is cool. This is one of the main points that I want to get across about this study; we need to make sure that more girls are more interested in ways of being active.
Dr Mark Pearce
As part of the Gateshead Millennium Study – which has collected data from more than one thousand infants born in 1999 or 2000 – 508 children wore activity monitors which tracked their movement objectively over a period of three to seven days. The monitor picked up levels of activity from merely moving around the house to more energetic pastimes like running and skipping, and these measurements were then combined with responses to an accompanying questionnaire and previous data from the Gateshead Millennium Study.
Some of the findings of the study, which was funded by the National Prevention Research Initiative, were to be expected but others have come as more of a surprise. It was found, for instance, that girls are already more sedentary than boys at age eight, spending an average of 2.5 per cent less of their day on physical activity than their male counterparts.
I spoke to Newcastle University’s Dr Mark Pearce, who led the study, about what the findings of the research suggest about why children are so inactive and how this may be remedied for the good of their health.What were the aims of your investigation and why was the study necessary?
We know a lot already about the importance of physical activity at all ages in terms of health, wellbeing and its ability to make people feel better, but the main aim of this study was to measure and explain levels of physical activity among eight year olds. We wanted to find the reasons behind different levels of physical activity rather than only looking at the association between activity and childhood obesity, for example. That was the rationale behind the study.What were the main findings of the research?
We found that these children spent on average just four per cent of their waking time doing moderate to vigorous physical activity, which is equivalent to around 20 minutes a day. The recommendation, based on health outcomes, is 60 minutes a day.
In terms of the reasons, we found quite marked differences between boys and girls, with girls being generally less active than boys. This is something that is well-known among the teenage population – teenage girls exercise much less than teenage boys – but we were not expecting to see it to such an extent among eight year olds.
We observed an association between time of year and activity levels. The children did more activity in the summer than in the winter, which is something you would expect to see. We found that children with older fathers were less active, and we also saw that those children who took part in sports clubs outside school hours were more active than those that did not. This was in terms of both the moderate to vigorous activity and sedentary behaviour, because as well as looking at how much activity the children did we were also interested in how much time they spent being sedentary – in other words, not doing much at all. Those children who took part in sports clubs were less sedentary than those who didn’t.Do you think the main reasons behind this lack of activity are social or cultural, or are there physical or medical reasons?
We didn’t relate this to any medical data – this is a birth cohort, so the children were not patients. We might have seen different results in a group of children with some sort of illness that prevented them from exercising.
We did find associations between activity and body mass index (BMI). One of the problems with this is that it may be what we call ‘bi-directional’; we know that physical activity is good for keeping BMI down, but there is also a possibility that those children with a higher BMI would be less likely to do exercise. For this reason we’re very cautious about drawing conclusions associated with BMI.
We don’t have any evidence that cultural reasons play a part, but social factors may be at least partially responsible. There are numerous reports on teenage girls not thinking that sport is cool. This is one of the main points that I want to get across about this study; we need to make sure that more girls are more interested in ways of being active. It does not necessarily have to be through sport – other activities such as dancing can help to get them moving in just as effective a manner.
It would be great if more girls could get involved in sports that they are better suited to. It may well be that they’re not interested in team sports or the competitive sports that boys are so often keen on, but there may be other sports that appeal to them.
There is a lack of female sporting role models in the UK because the media focus is much more around sportsmen. With the likes of Rebecca Adlington and Jessica Ennis, we should by rights have very high-profile sportswomen in this country, but the media interest is often more focused on what these women look like than their sporting abilities, which in my view should outweigh everything else. Hopefully the performance of our sportswomen at the London Olympics this summer can be a positive influence in getting girls interested in sport.Should it be the responsibility of the government and public bodies to ensure that children are more active, or should it be down to parents and carers?
I think it should be a bit of both. Our study is a starting point in trying to understand some of the reasons why children are inactive, and I think that we need more evidence on which to base interventions than our study alone. We need a combination of efforts in the home and in a school environment. We can encourage parents to encourage their children to be more active. We can try to find ways of helping schools encourage children to be more active.
It’s difficult to talk about policy implications on the evidence of a single epidemiology study, but I think we need to focus on children at a younger age, rather than solely concentrating on teenagers. We need to encourage activity at all ages.