Physical Activity Has Decreased in Children

Key Takeaways

  • Several studies show that kids are not being as physically active, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Conversely, adults are becoming more physically active.
  • Making efforts to incorporate movement into daily family schedules can be beneficial for everyone involved.

Many parents may worry that their children are not getting enough physical activity each day, particularly during the stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. While research has long illustrated trends that physical activity has declined in children (especially as they grow older), there is evidence that the converse is true for many adults.

While this may sound surprising, experts note that parents can use this motivation to help encourage kids to move, too. Being intentional with incorporating movement into your family’s daily life can help kids naturally get more exercise

What the Data Says

While some children still enjoy active and vigorous play, the amount of time kids spend being physically active lessens at age 8, and even more at age 11. These results from 2019 don’t account for the impact of COVID-19 or factoring social distancing and less human interaction into the mix.

In fact, a recent report from The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne culled data from over 2,000 participants. The results note that Australian youth were 42% less active during the initial lockdown period in 2020. AusPlay, an Australian publicly-funded population survey assessing kids’ participation in sports, gathered information from over 20,000 individuals. Researchers found
that 44% of those surveyed ages 15 to 17 were less active in sports and physical activities.

A 2019 study published in Obesity Reviews reviewed findings from over 9000 reports. The data caused researchers to express concern that children worldwide are at risk of not getting enough physical activity.

Meanwhile, the AusPlay survey notes an increase in adults’ physical activity, with 29% of parents in several age groups saying they’re getting more physical exercise. While this data is from Australia, where COVID-19 lockdown requirements different, it helps to paint a picture of how children and their parents have been incorporating active movement into their lives since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Impact of Physical Activity

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise that children ages 6 to 17 years old should have at least 60 minutes of physical activity on a daily basis. Activity for younger children is recommended based upon their age. Aerobic activity helps to strengthen muscles and bones and benefit cardiovascular health. It is also helpful mentally and emotionally.

Timothy Olds, PhD

Even a single bout of physical activity will improve memory, and what we call executive function, which is basically the ability to make decisions and juggle a lot at once. Long-term [exercise] is associated with much better school and academic performance.

— Timothy Olds, PhD

“Short-term effects are quite striking,” notes Timothy Olds, PhD, Professor, Alliance for Research in Exercise Nutrition and Activity, Sansom Institute, School of Health Sciences, University of Australia. “Even a single bout of physical activity will improve memory, and what we call executive function, which is basically the ability to make decisions and juggle a lot at once. Long-term [exercise] is associated with much better school and academic performance.”

Studies note that screen time has become much more prevalent, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Children became dependent on computers for school, recreation, and even socialization with platforms like FaceTime and Zoom. Additionally, team sports disappeared during the pandemic, removing an outlet to physically interact and compete. It impacted kids’ lifestyles in a way that persists, despite some team sports reemerging.

Parents, on the other hand, have been taking advantage of several ways to be physically active. Trips to the gym or walks in the neighborhood served as a time to unwind and relax after work. This is especially critical since many were working remotely with no separation of work and home life. Other outdoor activities even allow parents the opportunity to socialize.

Changing the Trend Together

Physical activity is important for the entire family. It can also be fun, and something the family does together.

“Make exercise mandatory and always [put it] on the schedule,” advises Angie Bryant, CrossFit PTC adult and kids coach and personal trainer. “Plan bike rides and family walks and outings to parks.”

She also recommends including movement in all parts of the day, including stretching exercises in the morning. Even yoga before bed can be a beneficial way for parents and children to relax.

Angie Bryant

It has to be a lifestyle, not an afterthought.

— Angie Bryant

“It has to be a lifestyle, not an afterthought,” Bryant concludes.

What This Means For You

Physical activity has benefits that extend beyond your physical health. It also impacts you mentally and emotionally. While the information the studies show is encouraging for parents, it notes a more concerted effort is needed to get kids physically active. Being intentional with scheduling time to be active as a family can make a positive change and help kids to not only start being more active, but to keep moving.

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