Study finds children become less active as they move through primary school

Children become less physically active as they go through primary school, a new study found. Between the ages of 6 and 11, children lost more than an hour of excise per week, with a greater decline on weekends.

A team of researchers at the University of Bristol found a significant drop in the physical activity levels of children in primary school. By the time they finish primary school at 11 years old, children are doing more than an hour less of physical activity a week, compared to when they were 6 years old.

The study, which was funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and published in the International Journal of Obesity, examined and monitored the behavior of more than 2,000 children across 57 schools in South West England. The researchers let the children wear an accelerometer for about five days, which included two weekend days.

Wearing an accelerometer provided accurate data of how many minutes per day, these children engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA), with the recommended duration of an hour each day.

Image Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Physical activity among children decreases over time

They found that children had 17 minutes less active per week every year. Also, they found that around 61 percent of the children in Year 1 of the study did at least an hour of MVPA each day. However, by the time they reached the 6th year, only 41 percent achieve the recommended target. Moreover, the team found that the significant drop in physical activity happened in girls, from 54 percent to 28 percent by the time they graduated primary school.

The amount lost was even greater at weekends. Experts urge for more action to encourage young people to become active, especially as they reach their teenage years or adolescence.

The study also studied how body mass index (BMI) is linked to physical activity in childhood.

"Evaluating patterns of physical activity across childhood is an important way to identify key ages in which to intervene to change behavior – and establish healthy habits for life,” Russ Jago, Professor of Paediatric Physical Activity & Public Health at the University of Bristol, said.

"These numbers prove that more needs 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,” he added.

Early intervention is important to promote physical activity in children

Further, the researchers noted that developing early intervention programs and strategies can help kids maintain physical activity, including sports, weekend activities, and after-school physical activity programs.

“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 their risk factors, such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, later in life,” Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at British Heart Foundation, commented.

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

Childhood obesity by the numbers

Physical activity has been linked to improved psychological and physical health among children and adolescents. When children become sedentary, they are at a greater risk of becoming obese and developing cardiometabolic risk factors.

Normally, physical activity levels change as a child grows older, increasing between 3 and 6 years old, and to peak, at the time the child starts school. This level should not decrease to prevent the child from becoming overweight and obese.

Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition affecting kids and teenagers. Those who are obese become obese adults in the future, and it can lead to poor self-esteem, lack of confidence, and even depression. Obesity during childhood years may also increase the risk of many diseases in the future, including type 2 diabetes.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the number of overweight or obese infants and children, aged 0-5 years old increased from 32 million in 1990 to a staggering 41 million in 2016.

In the United States, the prevalence of obesity was 18.5 percent and affected approximately 13.7 million children and adolescents, aged 2 to 19 years old.

Journal reference:

Jago, R., Salway, R., Emm-Collison, L. et al. Association of BMI category with change in children’s physical activity between ages 6 and 11 years: a longitudinal study. Int J Obes (2019) doi:10.1038/s41366-019-0459-0,

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She recently completed a Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and is now working as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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