This blog was originally published by the Youth Sport Trust on 7 August 2023.
The Active-6 project led by researchers at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Exercise, Nutrition, and Health Sciences has been exploring how Year 6’s physical activity and screen-viewing in 2017/18 compares to children in 2021 and 2022. Here, Dr Robert Walker, a researcher on the project provides an overview of this project’s findings and what they mean for the future of children’s physical activity.
Why physical activity is important
Meeting physical activity guidelines has been shown to have many benefits for children, such as improving mental and physical health, academic performance, and quality of life. The UK Chief Medical Officer recommends that children should engage in an hour or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. This is physical activity that raises the heart rate, and makes you breathe faster and feel warmer. Yet, as little as 41% of children aged 10-11 years in the UK were meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines prior to the pandemic.
The Active-6 project
With the nationwide COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, children were unable to be active in the same way they were before. For example, school closures reduced children’s opportunities to play with friends and attend active clubs and PE. While these restrictions were expected to impact children’s activity while they were in place, the Active-6 project investigated whether they had a lasting impact on children’s activity once they were removed.
To do this, we used devices to measured Year 6 children’s activity in 2021 and 2022 and compared these to data collected in 2017/18 from Year 6 children in the same schools from the Greater Bristol area. We also conducted research interviews with parents, children, and school staff to help us understand the reason for any changes.
For more information about research methods, peer-reviewed scientific publications, and other project information, please visit our project website (https://www.actify.org.uk/active-6).
It took a year of no lockdowns for physical activity to return to pre-pandemic levels
As children emerged from the last lockdown in spring 2021 and began attending school with some restrictions still in place, their moderate to vigorous physical activity was lower by 7-8 minutes and sedentary time was higher by 25 minutes per day compared to Year 6’s from the same schools in 2017/18. Our research interviews revealed that children felt emotionally and physically fatigued, especially after the return to school in September 2021, as they had become used to the isolated and sedentary lifestyle of lockdowns. This led to withdrawal from activities they had previously enjoyed, such as playing with friends and attending active clubs.
“Swimming, I always used to enjoy it but now I don’t enjoy it as much because I find it really tiring and every week I say to my mum, ‘Can I not go?’ because I didn’t want to go because I just get tired and everything….I used to be really active but now, I don’t do much”
This decrease in activity did not last, as we found that children’s activity returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2022, though sedentary time remained higher by around 13 minutes. However, children’s activity levels are still not high enough, with 59% of the children we measured in 2022 not meeting recommended levels.
The new normal of children’s physical activity
Although children’s activity levels have returned, the pandemic has changed the way children are active, which we have called the “new normal” for children’s physical activity. We found that children’s activity is now dependent on more structured activities, such as active clubs, and less dependent on unstructured activities, such as playing with friends after school. This change stems from habits formed under long periods of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions that includes more screen-viewing at home and less spontaneous trips outside the house. A legacy of poorer mental health and an interruption to emotional, physical, and social skills also made meeting activity guidelines more difficult for many children.
“…he’s got a games console. He’s got a phone, he’s got access to a TV… he would just rotate between the three all day, if he could. He doesn’t seem to have a desire to, kind of, move away from those…. if something’s programmed in, planned in, then he would, you know, he knows that he’s going to go and play football, he’s going to go and play rugby, but he hasn’t got that desire to even move away from screens and go into the kitchen… go to the garden and do, sort of, activity himself.”
Physical activity inequalities
We found that two groups of children in particular are at risk of lower activity levels in the wake of the pandemic. The first is children from lower socioeconomic households. In new normal with increased importance of activities like active clubs, children from lower socioeconomic households may struggle to afford the costs of getting involved, especially community clubs that can be more expensive than those at school. However, challenges to engaging these children in active clubs did not seem to be limited to financial issues and future research is needed to explore this. The second group is girls. Girls on average participate in less activity than boys. We have found that there was less peer and role modelling during the pandemic. This has led to girls’ perceptions of self and confidence in relation to physical activity becoming worse that has made many lose interest in active clubs.
What this means for the future of children’s physical activity
While it is positive that physical activity among children has on average returned to pre-pandemic levels, the number of children who are sufficiently active remains very low. It is important that practitioners and policymakers are aware of the new normal for children’s physical activity and see this an opportunity to improve activity levels across the UK. It is also vital that affordable and accessible active clubs are available to all children, especially girls and children from lower socioeconomic households who require extra support following the pandemic.