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This article is from the WebMD News Archive

UK seven year olds 'not active enough'

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Farah Ahmed

22nd August 2013 - Half of all UK seven year olds are sedentary for six to seven hours every day - and girls, children of Indian ethnic origin and those living in Northern Ireland are the least physically active.

Research published in the online journal BMJ Open indicates that only half of children in the UK get enough exercise. The research is based on findings from a sample of almost 7,000 UK children who participated in the Millennium Cohort Study which tracks the long-term health of about 19,000 UK children born between 2000 and 2002.

The research is the first UK-wide study of children that objectively measures physical activity - and inactivity.

Gathering evidence

Rather than rely on self-reporting, each child was asked to wear an accelerometer for a full week between May 2008 and August 2009 - it was only taken off when bathing, sleeping or swimming. An accelerometer is a small portable device worn on an elasticated belt that captures the duration and intensity of physical activity levels while it is worn, including the number of steps taken.

Current UK guidelines on daily physical activity levels for children, which were revised in 2011, recommend that children engage in moderate to vigorous activity for at least 60 minutes every day. Although no maximum time has been specified, these guidelines also recommend that children spend less time sitting down.

The latest study shows that across the entire sample of 7,000 children, 51% of them engaged in 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily. The children took an average of 10,299 steps a day.

However, the accelerometer readings also show that half the children were sedentary for six or more hours every day, and that a half of the children did not reach the recommended daily exercise levels.

The research also found:

  • Boys did better than girls in terms of total physical activity, moderate to vigorous physical activity, and in the number of steps taken each day, with 10,739 measured steps for boys compared with 9,699 for girls.
  • Girls were more sedentary and less likely than boys to meet their recommended daily exercise levels; only 38% of girls met the UK government guideline targets compared with 63% of boys.
  • Children of Indian ethnic origin took the fewest steps - 8,699 measured steps - and spent the least amount of time engaging in moderate to vigorous exercise; only 33% of these children met the UK government guideline targets.
  • Children in North Ireland were the least active in the UK, with just 43% managing 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day.
  • Children in Scotland were the most active in the UK, with 52.5% achieving the minimum daily amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity recommended each day.
  • Within England, where 52% of children managed 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day, there were regional differences: 58% of children in the North West met the guideline targets, but only 46% in the Midlands.
  • Children of unemployed mothers were slightly more likely to be active than those with employed mothers.
  • Children of lone parents were slightly more likely to be active than children in two-parent families.

Senior author Professor Carol Dezateux, who refers to the gender differences in exercise levels as "striking", is calling for policies to promote more exercise among girls.

The authors write: "The results of our study provide a useful baseline and strongly suggest that contemporary UK children are insufficiently active, implying that effort is needed to boost [physical activity] among young people to the level appropriate for good health."

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