During the pandemic many children have been less active than ever before; with school closures and social restrictions it’s not hard to see why. This decline in activity overlays an already inadequate level of physical activity for many young people. Before the pandemic only 47% of children and young people in the UK were doing the recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise. Over the past year this figure has dropped.
Many of the things that contribute to children’s activity, such as walking to and from school, physical education classes, school playtimes and sports clubs have been disrupted. Lockdowns and other requirements for reducing Covid-19 transmission have resulted in less physical exercise for many children and families.
This is not to say that children aren’t exercising at all. Walks with the family, free and unstructured play and online fitness classes are playing an important part in young people being active. The range and quality of online physical education classes have greatly improved through the pandemic with organisations such as the Youth Sport Trust partnering with school lesson plan providers to include physical activity prompts at the end of every online tutorial. This is a great idea that can be continued when pandemic restrictions are lifted.
However, not everyone has access to the same opportunities to exercise at home or to get outside for a walk. Small living spaces, absent or limited Wi-Fi and digital devices may be factors. Parents who are busy working from home or are going out to work may lack time to encourage or supervise indoor activities, or to accompany children outdoors. So, while few children are getting enough physical activity, some are getting much less than others.
There is abundant evidence showing the importance and value of physical activity and sport. Regular exercise is a key factor in reducing the risk of serious conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. It also reduces the risk of obesity, encourages healthy musculoskeletal growth, and improves coordination and balance, all of which help prevent musculoskeletal issues in later life.
And the benefits are not only physical. Research has shown that regular physical activity can improve concentration, mood, self-esteem, and sleep quality, and reduce the likelihood of stress, anxiety, depression, and dementia. Playing sport has additional benefits of teaching social skills, teamwork, patience, leadership, cooperation, confidence, discipline and how to cope with both winning and losing. It can also bring a sense of belonging and friendship.
It should therefore be unsurprising that physical activity translates to improved academic performance and achievement.
We know that behaviours learned when we are young tend to be maintained as we grow older. Inactive children tend to become inactive adults. Therefore, it is vitally important that we address the lack of activity in our younger generations as a matter of urgency.
I am very concerned that as pandemic restrictions are lifted and our children return to their schools, academic activity will be prioritised at the expense of physical activity. I realise that there may be academic ‘catching up’ to do, but to do this at the expense of physical activity is illogical and short sighted. Each benefits the other and both are essential for the development of physically and mentally healthy young people who are achieving at their best. Instilling healthy behaviours in youth makes their continuation more likely into adulthood and will reduce the burden of disease and the demands on health services.
This is a public health issue and should be important to all of us. If this pandemic has taught us anything it’s that raising children to be physically and mentally resilient is more important than ever.