Children’s exercise levels decline way before adolescence

It has been widely assumed that levels of exercise in children decline when they reach adolescence, but a recent study by The British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that physical activity levels begin to decline much earlier; at the age of seven. The research suggests that sitting is replacing physical activity as soon as they begin school and there is no evidence that the decline begins at adolescence.

The study involved tracking the activity levels of 400 children over 8 years using monitors worn for a week at a time. The amount of exercise the children did was measured at age seven and then again at age nine, 12 and 15. It’s recommended that children should get at least one hour of exercise a day, but many of the children in the study did less as they reached age 7 and older. On average, boys spent 75 minutes a day exercising when they were seven, falling to 51 minutes when they were 15. The average girl spent 63 minutes per day exercising when they were seven, which fell to 41 minutes when they were 15. Although the boys and girls in the study did moderate levels of exercise at seven, this gradually tailed off before reaching adolescence.

What causes the drop-off in children’s physical activity?

The study cannot prove what caused the drop-off in physical activity in the children but Prof John Reilly, study author from the University of Strathclyde, said that “something is going wrong in British children” long before adolescence. The recent findings that physical activity declines at age seven coincidences with the peak rate of obesity cases in children and greatest increases in weight gain.

Different research on the same group of children found that the time lost to exercise was spent sitting instead. It found that children aged seven spent half their day sitting, and by the age of 15, this had gone up to 3/4 of their day spent sitting. Prof Reilly mentions that “activity levels tail off from the time of going to school, when there’s a change in lifestyle”. He believes that, “Schools should be more active environments. There should be more activity breaks to break up long periods of sitting”. He also emphasised that activities outside school also had an important role to play because children only spend a total of half their year in school.

How much physical activity should children be doing?

It is recommended by NHS Choices that children should get at least one hour of exercise a day. This should range from moderate activity, such as cycling and playground activities, to vigorous activity, such as running. On three days a week, these activities should involve exercises for strong muscles, such as gymnastics, and exercises for strong bones, such as jumping and running.

It is a major concern that 1 in 5 children leave primary school obese and we should be encouraging children to get their recommended one hour of physical activity a day. Lack of physical activity will have consequences for children now, as well as in the future.

Five tips for getting your child to be more active:

  1. Walk or cycle to school as often as you can
  2. Find time every weekend to do something active with your children
  3. Take the dog for a walk – if you haven’t got one, borrow one
  4. Support your child in any sport, club or activity that interests them
  5. Take part in a fun run or a charity challenge together.