Half of all UK seven-year-olds do not get enough exercise, research suggests

Half of all seven-year-olds in the UK are inactive for six to seven hours every day, according to new research using data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS).

Findings also show that only half of children are reaching the recommended daily minimum for moderate to vigorous physical activity. Girls, children of Indian ethnic origin, and those living in Northern Ireland were found to be the least physically active of all seven-year-olds.

Research led by University College London, in collaboration with Professor Heather Joshi from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, analysed the physical activity levels of almost 7,000 children. At age seven, the MCS children were asked to wear an accelerometer for a full week between May 2008 and August 2009. The gadget monitored the children’s activity, and was only removed when they bathed or went to bed.

The analysis showed that, on average, children managed 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day and took 10,299 steps.

However, the accelerometer readings showed that half of the children did not reach the daily recommended exercise target. The latest UK guidelines recommend that children engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least an hour every day, and that they spend less time sitting down, although no maximum has been specified for this.

The researchers found that girls exercised less than boys overall, with just 38 per cent of girls meeting the recommended daily exercise target compared to almost two thirds (63 per cent) of boys. Girls also took fewer steps every day than boys, and were less likely to take part in moderate to vigorous physical activity.

Children of Indian ethnic origin spent the least time in moderate to vigorous exercise and took the fewest steps each day, while only one in three (33 per cent) children of Bangladeshi origin achieved the recommended daily exercise minimum.

Among the four UK countries, children in Northern Ireland were the least active, with just 43 per cent managing 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day. Children in Scotland were the most likely (52.5 per cent) to achieve the minimum daily target.

In England, children living in the North West were the most likely (58 per cent) to engage in at least an hour of moderate to vigorous exercise per day, while those in the Midlands were the least likely (46 per cent).

In a podcast that accompanies the research paper, Professor Carol Dezateux, one of the authors, describes the gender differences as “striking” and calls for policies to promote more exercise among girls, including dancing, playground activities, and ball games.

“The results of our study provide a useful baseline and strongly suggest that contemporary UK children are insufficiently active,” write the authors.

They argue that population-wide interventions, such as policies to make it easier for children to walk to school, are needed to boost physical activity among young people.

They also refer to the legacy of the London 2012 Olympic Games, which promised to inspire a generation to take part in sport.

“Investing in this area is a vital component to deliver the Olympic legacy and improve the short and long term health of our children,” they conclude.

Read the full paper

How active are our children? Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study’, by Lucy J Griffiths, Mario Cortina-Borja, Francesco Sera, Theodora Pouliou, Maro Geraci, Carly Rich, Tim J Cole, Catherine Law, Heather Joshi, Andrew R Ness, Susan A Jebb and Carol Dezateux, was published in August 2013 by the British Medical Journal.