Post-pandemic children exercising less

UK researchers say youngsters have yet to return to pre-Covid levels of activity

A study found that children in Britain aged 10 and 11 took part in, on average, only 56 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity on weekdays. Getty Images
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Children's activity levels in the UK were significantly lower once pandemic restrictions were lifted compared with before the Covid outbreak, researchers have found.

The study, led by the University of Bristol, found that by the end of 2021 little more than a third (36 per cent) of children were meeting the national recommended physical activity guidelines.

While there was no change in their parents’ physical activity levels, the study found 10 and 11 year olds took part in only 56 minutes – less than the recommended hour – of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity during weekdays from April to December last year.

It represents an average of eight minutes fewer — or a drop of 13 per cent — than children of a similar age were doing before the pandemic.

When the pandemic broke out in early 2020, the UK government ordered a lockdown which included the closure of playgrounds, suspension of team sports and for the majority of children home-schooling.

Many organisations took months to reconvene even after rules were relaxed.

Senior author Russ Jago, professor of physical activity and public health, said: “It was surprising the extent children’s physical activity levels had fallen after the pandemic, indicating that changes in physical activity patterns did not revert to previous levels once freedoms had been restored."

He said the findings indicated "a greater need to work with children, families, schools and communities" to ensure young people become more physically active.

Prof Jago told The National: “We know that physical activity patterns track from childhood to adulthood and that regular physical activity as a child is important for developing the skills and confidence to be active as an adult.

"We also know that being active during childhood is important for children's current and future mental health. So helping children and young people is important for developing skills and experiences to be active.”

Regarding the specific reasons why exercise levels had dropped, he said: “We are currently working on understanding this issue. We have done a lot of interviews and focus groups with children, parents and school staff to understand the causes of the lower levels of physical activity and the strategies that can be put in place to mitigate these effects. We hope to be able to share that very soon.”

The findings showed children were less active at the weekend than during the week, taking part in 46 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on weekend days. This was about 8 minutes fewer than the activity of children who were measured using the same methods pre-pandemic.

The research, published today in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, also revealed a marked increase in sedentary time, with children spending 25 minutes longer being sedentary per day, than previously during the week.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Health Research, recruited 393 children and their parents, from 23 schools in the Bristol area, who wore an accelerometer to measure intensity of physical activity and answered a questionnaire. This information was compared with data from 1,296 children and their parents who were recruited from 50 schools in the same area before the pandemic.

Physical activity is important for children’s health and happiness. The UK chief medical officers recommend all children and young people should take part in an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day, exercise that results in being slightly hot, sweaty and out of breath. The chief medical officers also advise children should limit the amount of time they spend being sedentary.

The study’s first author Dr Ruth Salway, a statistician at the university’s school for policy studies, said: “The key strength of this study was we used data collected before and after the pandemic, using the same methods and in the same schools.

“The data clearly demonstrates children’s physical activity had deteriorated once the restrictions were lifted. This emphasises the importance of understanding how such habits change over time, so appropriate support and interventions can be introduced as normality resumes.”

Updated: May 16, 2022, 8:51 AM