‘Attached to a screen’, ‘never get outside’, ‘don’t climb trees like I used to do’… just some of the criticisms lumped at today’s children from those wearing rose-tinted glasses? Unfortunately, the stereotypes wielded by the ‘kids these days’ brigade are proving largely correct, and there are significant risks to the health of UK children due to a lack of physical activity.
Indeed, it’s not just diet that’s important for children’s wellbeing, and the stats for exercise far from make healthy reading. While the NHS advises that children should do at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day to maintain a basic level of health, studies show that only 23% of boys and 20% of girls are actually meeting these targets. Such figures have steadily worsened over the past few decades, not coincidentally alongside an increase in child obesity. Worldwide, the number of children who are obese rose from less than 1% in 1975 to 5.6% of girls and 7.8% of boys in 2016. While the numbers have started to level off in the UK, they are nonetheless alarming. As NHS figures show, nearly a third of children aged between 2 and 15 are overweight or obese, with younger generations becoming obese at earlier ages. Further down the line, obesity doubles the risk of dying prematurely, with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
But attention should not only be directed at obesity. It is interesting to note that we purchase 30% fewer calories today than 20 years ago (Institute for Fiscal Studies) and that the proportion of calories children get from sugar has also declined since the 1990s (British Journal of Nutrition) – in many cases a child may be slim, but they can still be suffering from a lack of exercise. Indeed, a recent study from the University of Exeter found that the least fit child from a class of 30 in 1998 would be one of the five fittest children in a class of the same age today, despite the relatively healthy BMI of the latter. And again, a lower level of aerobic fitness can increase the risk of diabetes or heart disease in adulthood.
So why are children exercising less?
As government reports show, by the age of 13 around 20% of children are sedentary for more than six hours per day. More worryingly, perhaps, is that at weekends this figure is even higher at 35%, suggesting that when left to their own devices children are not taking part in activities to get themselves moving. Yet, contrary to the criticisms of the ‘kids these days’ crowd, it is not children as individuals who are to ‘blame’ for these concerning facts. Growing up at in time where a sedentary lifestyle is the norm, even encouraged – you need only look at ads for computer games, or the pressure to sit at a desk all day studying – it is hardly a surprise that ‘FIFA’ is chosen over the football field, and social media over a walk to visit friends. It’s no longer the case that children will get sufficient exercise as a result of their natural everyday activity. In this context, it is clear that ensuring children get the right amount of exercise must be given the same amount of direct attention that we give to providing a healthy diet.
Finding a balance
While we need to take action to get our children moving, this isn’t to say that parents should play drill sergeant and start prescribing press-ups alongside the 5-A-Day. Indeed, school P.E. lessons, which conjure cold, miserable images for many, are testament to the need for exercise to be enjoyable in order to be effective. The ‘Daily Mile’, a scheme set up in Scotland in 2012 and now taking place in more than 3,600 schools in 30 countries, is a great example of how this can be achieved. Researchers have found that the scheme, which simply gets pupils to run around the school field for a 15 minute slot of the day, leads to significant improvements in fitness and body composition. Importantly, the Daily Mile takes place in a relaxed setting – ran in school uniform with socialising encouraged – and has been enthusiastically taken up by pupils. Clearly, when exercise is enjoyable, and is integrated into daily activities, it can work wonders.
What can you do?
If you are concerned about your children’s health and wellbeing, contact a medical professional for advice and help. With the Qured app, you can see a doctor at a time and location of your choice. Download the app today -> onelink.to/jtygac.