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Children’s physical activity levels fell below national guidelines in wake of pandemic, shows study

Published: 16 May 2022

New research has revealed children’s physical activity levels in the UK were significantly lower by the time the COVID-19 pandemic public lockdown restrictions were lifted.

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

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

That’s around eight minutes on average less, a drop of 13%, than children of a similar age were doing before the pandemic. 

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. 

“These findings highlight a greater need to work with children, families, schools, and communities to maximise the opportunities for children to be physically active, as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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 during weekend days. This was around 8 minutes lower than the activity of children who were measured using the same methods pre-pandemic.

The study, published 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.

Physical activity is important for children’s health and happiness. The UK Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) recommend all children and young people should take part in an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) each day. This is an activity that gets children slightly hot, slightly sweaty, and out of breath. The Chief Medical Officers also advise children should limit the amount of time they spend being sedentary.  

The study was funded by the Public Health Research (PHR) Programme

Find out more about the study on the NIHR funding and Awards website.

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