Children’s Exercise and Physical Activity Declines From Seven Years Old

Wednesday 15th March 2017

Children begin to exercise less not long after they start school, a study from the British Journal of Sport Medicine has stunningly revealed. This contradicts previous thinking on the decline of exercises and raises question on how to tackle obesity and its causes amongst children and young people.

It was previously considered that the general age where children and young people stop exercising as much is when they reach adolescence, with teenage girls in particularly being a risk group based on subjective evidence of exercise drop off, however the results of a new study suggests the problem with maintaining a healthy level of exercise may start as early as age seven.

The study took place over 8 years and was based on 217 individual children and young adults being measured over a week with a fitness accelerometer at four specific time points. These time points are Age 7, Age 9, Age 12 and Age 15. During the time point, the accelerometer is worn during waking hours, and only taken off to sleep and any activity that involves water.

The results showed that by age 7 across the entire sample the amount of physical activity had reduced, which was consistent with other objective studies of physical activity among children. What is interesting is that the reduction was largely consistent between girls and boys, which defies long held beliefs that puberty leads to a sharp decline in exercise and physical activity. There are exceptions, there is a small but significant number of boys who maintain a relatively high and stable level of exercise throughout the study, which also affects the notion that there is a uniform level of decline in exercise amongst children and young people, and the reasons why would some children end up maintaining high levels of physical activity and some do not is a good platform for further study.

What the study cannot do based on the scope of the study is look into the potential reasons why such a decline takes place, and while further study on specific risk factors would be worthwhile, currently it is speculative.

The first notable point is that there is no group that is notably higher risk than other. Both boys and girls experienced a decline in physical activity and so the focus on groups particularly at risk of not taking up exercise. The first step in any policy to improve the physical health of children would therefore be to abandon focus on any specific group and aim at improving exercise levels overall.

Physical activity declines around the time children start school. This particular study notes a decline from the age of 7 onwards however other studies have found consistent results which suggest the decline begins as early as 5 years old. One potential avenue for boosting physical activity therefore is looking into why specifically there is a connection between school and less exercise, and whether anything can be done to encourage higher levels of physical activity in schools, such as increasing funding for physical education.

Lifestyle factors also must be taken into account. These days there are more ways to find entertainment, shop and basically do almost everything at the touch of a screen. While this has made everything a lot more available and convenient, more studies are needed to see the effect of “screen-time” and whether it has a connection to lesser physical activity and general ill-health.

In any case, it is worrying that exercise levels reduce so quickly, given that the consequences of a lack of exercise, from weight gain to increased risk factors for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other chronic health conditions, is well known.