ACTION must be taken to make children more active, researchers in the North East say.
The call from scientists at Newcastle University came after a new study showed that children under the age of eight are only reaching a third of recommended activity levels.
The study also found that girls are becoming more inactive than boys earlier than had previously been thought and that children of older fathers – often people working long hours because they hold senior positions at work – are less active.
The Newcastle researchers joined forces with a team from the University of Strathclyde to focus on the activity levels of youngsters in Tyneside, in one of the first studies of its kind.
For the Gateshead Millennium Study, more than 500 eight to 10-year-olds in the region wore monitors as they took part in a variety of activities, including climbing stairs, running, playing games and skipping. The investigation found that children spent an average of around 20 minutes per day on physical activities – well below the experts’ recommendation of at least an hour.
At aged eight, girls were already less active than boys – something known to occur at secondary school as girls deemed sport as “uncool” – and children who took part in sports clubs outside of school were more active than those who did not.
Dr Mark Pearce, of Newcastle University, is leading the study and said it was important to tackle inactivity levels in children early on to help stem an obesity crisis.
He said: “The study is a really interesting development. Much is said about the inactivity in teenagers and much is said about how inactivity affects health and wellbeing.
“Given the importance of physical activity in maintaining good health, we know we need to get our kids more active. What we hadn’t known until now is how young we need to be catching them, or the reasons that lay behind their lack of activity.
“It is one of the first times that activity levels in children of this age group has been studied, and the significant difference of inactivity between boys and girls of this age highlighted.
“We need to look at why young girls are less active. Maybe it is to do with the fact that girls do not like the sort of activity they get to do or, perhaps, more focus needs to be on sporting female role models.”
Dr Pearce said that the London Olympics would be an ideal time to get young girls interested in sport, with female athletes such as Jessica Ennis, Rebecca Adlington and Victoria Pendleton set to take centre stage.
In the investigation – funded by the National Prevention Research Initiative - 508 children were assessed. They wore activity monitors for at least three days and their movement were registered.
The data, published in the journal PLoS ONE, was then related to an accompanying questionnaire and data collected previously in the study, which has been on-going since birth.
Surprisingly, the findings also identified that parents who restricted access to television were shown to have children who were less active.
A possible reason for this is that parents who do not allow children to watch much television do not want them to play sport either – if, for example, they were particularly keen on maximising study time.
A recent survey by the NHS Information Centre showed that obesity rates among primary school children in the North East are among the highest in England.
Figures released identified that 21.4% of Year 6 pupils in the region were classed as obese in 2010/11, compared to an England average of 19%.
The North East was the second worst in the country – only marginally eclipsed by London at 21.9%.