Pupils become less active during primary school

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:

Research has revealed that by the age of 11, children are doing more than an hour less of physical activity a week compared to when they were six-years-old. Dorothy Lepkowska takes a look...

Theresa Harris has an on-going battle at her primary school to maintain levels of physical activity among pupils.

The PE lead, who works in a large primary in North East England, said that not only do children feel less inclined to do exercise as they get older, but the time set aside in the timetable to do it becomes scarcer.

“When they’re little, children love being outdoors and play-times are fun and very active,” she said. “They run around and make up their own games together. But as they progress through school this becomes noticeably less obvious.

“By the time they reach key stage 2, they’re not even doing much at break-time. Boys might be kicking a ball around, but many girls will be sitting around on benches chatting.”

A study from the University of Bristol supports Ms Harris’ experience (Jago et al, 2019). The report reveals a dramatic drop in children’s physical activity levels by the time they finish primary school.

Researchers monitored the behaviour of more than 2 000 children from 57 schools across South West and found that children became 17 minutes less active per week for every year of primary school that passed, with an even greater fall in activity at weekends. This equates to a loss of 85 minutes a week of exercise by the time pupils reach the end of year 6.

The UK chief medical officers recommend that children do an hour every day of MVPA – that is moderate intensity and vigorous intensity physical activity, a definition that means they exert themselves enough to get slightly out of breath and sweaty.

The pupils who took part in the study wore an accelerometer for five days, including both weekend days, so that researchers could get an accurate assessment of how many minutes per day they took part in MVPA.

The study, which was funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and published in the International Journal of Obesity, found that 61 per cent of children in year 1 did at least an hour of MVPA per day, but by year 6, only 41 per cent achieved that target. This drop was particularly steep for girls, who fell from 54 to 28 per cent by the time they left primary school.

Russ Jago, professor of paediatric physical activity and public health at the University of Bristol, who led the research, also looked at how body mass index (BMI) was associated with physical exercise in children, and whether this changed as children become older.

“Evaluating patterns of physical activity across childhood is an important way to identify key ages in which to intervene to change behaviour – and establish healthy habits for life,” Prof Jago said.

“These numbers prove that more needs to be done to ensure children keep active as they approach adolescence. This isn’t about getting children to exercise more, but rather maintaining their activity levels.

“Developing early intervention strategies that help children retain activity levels could include after-school physical activity programmes, focusing on participation and enjoyment in addition to popular sports – and a greater emphasis on promoting weekend activities.”

Data from the 2018/19 National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) shows that 9.7 per cent of four to five-year-olds in England are obese and that this more than doubles to 20.2 per cent for 10 to 11-year-olds (NHS Digital, 2019). Nine out of 10 children who are already obese at the age of three years remain overweight or obese into adolescence.

Professor Jeremy Pearson, the BHF’s associate medical director, said: “Almost a third of children in the UK weigh more than they should, while one in four primary school children are not meeting the recommended levels of exercise.

“We know that children living with obesity are more likely to become obese adults – putting them at increased risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases and other risk factors, such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, later in life.

“Staying active must be combined with policies that help families make healthy and informed choices, such as a 9pm watershed on junk food marketing and restricting the promotion of unhealthy foods.”

In Ms Harris’ school, a scheme called Movement has been introduced, run by her and a colleague, during which children who are deemed overweight and obese for their age are encouraged to come in 15 minutes early to do an exercise session, three times a week. Typically, the activities include utilising a range of skills from catching and throwing for the younger ones, to more structured sport for older pupils.

“We’ve had little resistance from parents to the Movement sessions, although I know some feel a stigma in being seen to come into school early,” she said. “In one case, a family took it very seriously and decided to lose weight and get fit together. They helped to motivate each other.”

At the same time, the school nurse had led sessions for pupils and parents on healthy eating and giving advice on activities the whole family can do together – such as local park runs, and maps of pleasant walking routes that can be done for free locally, or sports and sessions at leisure centres. The school has also set up after-school sports and physical activities, ranging from netball, running and athletics, to gardening.

Ms Harris added: “We still have a challenge on our hands with getting some pupils to be more active, but the more they see sport taking place around them, the more the importance of this for health and wellbeing filters through, so we have to persevere.”

Earlier this year, the government launched a new plan to increase sports participation in all schools, so that girls and other groups who are less active develop a more positive view of sport.

The School Sport and Activity Action Plan (DfE et al, 2019) includes a range of programmes, such as the introduction of regional pilots to trial approaches to getting young people active; a commitment to raising awareness among teachers that young people should do at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day; and the creation of teaching hubs to support primary schools in making the best use of the PE and Sport Premium funding.

Further information

  • Association of BMI category with change in children’s physical activity between ages 6 and 11 years: A longitudinal study, Jago et al, International Journal of Obesity, November 2019: https://go.nature.com/2LyvBHx
  • See also: Children become less active each year of primary school, Pandos/BHF, November 2019: http://bit.ly/36dOPdF
  • School Sport and Activity Action Plan, Department for Education, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Department of Health and Social Care, July 2019: http://bit.ly/2Yv96IP
  • National Child Measurement Programme, England: 2018/19, NHS Digital, October 2019: http://bit.ly/2P0FUX7


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