Day-to-day exercise `largely disappearing from young…

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Day-to-day exercise is ‘largely disappearing from young people’s lives’, an expert warns, as new data show England and Wales rank near the bottom in terms of how much children move.

Published by the World Health Organization (WHO) and covering 44 countries, the study shows England, Wales and Scotland performed poorly on markers such as day-to-day exercise like brisk walking.

Another metric found not all children were having breakfast on a school day in contrary to health guidance. 

While there have been improvements in areas such as children eating daily fruit and vegetables, youngsters are still not consuming enough to meet healthy eating recommendations, the report found. 

Furthermore, there are stark differences – particularly in the UK – between children from affluent families and those who are poorer, with youngsters from poorer backgrounds far less likely to eat well or exercise.

Data shows England and Wales rank near the bottom of a world league table on how much children move 

The survey looked at the lives of children aged 11, 13 and 15 living in Europe, Central Asia and Canada.

It included more than 4,000 children in England, 4,000 in Scotland plus children in Welsh schools.

Data showed that 30 per cent of girls and 18 per cent of boys in England are inactive across all age groups surveyed, while the figure in Wales is 27 per cent for girls and 17 per cent for boys.

In Scotland, 21 per cent of girls are inactive, alongside 12 per cent of boys.

By age 15, just 11 per cent of girls and 16 per cent of boys in England do at least 60 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, which can include things like brisk walking, cycling or rollerblading.

In Scotland, the figure was 7 per cent of girls and 16 per cent of boys in Wales and 12 per cent of girls and 21 per cent of boys.

How much physical activity should children and young people aged 5 to 18 do to keep healthy? 

Children and young people aged 5 to 18 should: 

  • Aim for an average of at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous intensity physical activity a day across the week 
  • Take part in a variety of types and intensities of physical activity across the week to develop movement skills, muscles and bones 
  • Reduce the time spent sitting or lying down and break up long periods of not moving with some activity. Aim to spread activity throughout the day 

These results put England and Wales near the bottom of the global table, and below Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Norway and Croatia.

Things are better for more vigorous activity, such as team sports, but the UK still performs below the average for all countries in the study.

Dr Jo Inchley, international co-ordinator for the study an expert in social and public health science at the University of Glasgow said: ‘In the UK, we’re consistently low on physical activity.

‘We do see relatively high levels of young people involved in what we call vigorous activities, that might be sort of organised sports… But we’ve got big gender differences and big socio-economic differences.

‘At age 15, we’ve got two thirds of boys in the UK, roughly, who are taking part in vigorous physical activity four or more times a week, but only a third of girls.

‘So that’s twice as many boys as girls.

‘On more day-to-day moderate to vigorous physical activity, where the heart is beating a little bit faster but it’s not high-impact exercise, that’s largely disappearing from young people’s lives.

‘So previously, when young people would have spent a lot of time outdoors just playing in the local streets or walking to friends’ houses or going to the park, that (figure) would have been a lot a lot higher.

‘Now we’re really seeing that coming down very low. I think that’s quite worrying because that can have a big impact on young people’s health and wellbeing.”

When it comes to eating breakfast before school, which experts said is a good healthy eating habit for children, some 37 per cent of 13-year-old girls and 59 per cent of boys in England eat breakfast on weekdays, while the figure is 33 per cent and 54 per cent respectively in Wales and 36 per cent and 61 per cent in Scotland.

This is below other countries including Portugal, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and Norway.

Girls in England, Wales and Scotland are less likely to eat breakfast than the average for all countries in the study.

By age 15, just 35 per cent of girls in England eat breakfast daily on weekdays (below average for all countries), as do 51 per cent of boys.

When it comes to fruit, 46 per cent of girls and 43 per cent of boys aged 11 in England eat fruit daily, as do 38 per cent of girls and 35 per cent of boys in Wales and 54 per cent of girls and 52 per cent of boys in Scotland.

Over a million children had their height and weight measured under the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP). Nationally, the rate among children in Year 6 stands at over a third, despite having fallen slightly since Covid began

Over a million children had their height and weight measured under the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP). Nationally, the rate among children in Year 6 stands at over a third, despite having fallen slightly since Covid began

Among Year 6 pupils, national obesity fell from 23.4 per cent in 2021/22 to 22.7 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion of children deemed either overweight or obese also dipped, from 37.8 per cent to 36.6. Both measures are above pre-pandemic levels

Among Year 6 pupils, national obesity fell from 23.4 per cent in 2021/22 to 22.7 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion of children deemed either overweight or obese also dipped, from 37.8 per cent to 36.6. Both measures are above pre-pandemic levels

Dr Inchley said: ‘I think we’re seeing a trend in the UK… decreases in breakfast consumption over time.

‘That is worrying because that means young people are going to school without having anything to eat, which will affect their ability to learn and concentrate.

‘It’s particularly low for 13 to 15-year-old girls – less than about 40 per cent having breakfast every day on school days – and that’s definitely an area of concern.

‘Breakfast consumption sets you up for the day and is associated with a range of positive health outcomes and educational outcomes.

‘More generally, I think it speaks to kind of healthier eating pattern, which of course then links to overweight and obesity as well.’

Dr Inchley also pointed to stark differences in the report between more affluent and less affluent families.

She said: ‘Almost twice as many young people from high socio-economic groups are eating vegetables, for example, compared with lower socio-economic groups. That is a massive difference.

‘I think poverty must be a massive driver behind that.

‘Also, young people growing up in poorer areas may be less likely to be able to access fresh fruit and vegetables, it can be more costly for younger people to buy them, and there’s maybe sort of cultural barriers around preparing fresh meals every day and so on.’

She said it was positive that, over time, children seem to be eating more fruit and vegetables and there has been a drop in sugary drinks consumption.

Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said: ‘Regular physical activity, healthy eating habits and maintaining a healthy weight are essential elements of a healthy lifestyle.

‘The report’s findings signal a need for targeted interventions to enable adolescents to adopt healthier behaviours and avoid habits that affect not only their current health and well-being, but also their future trajectories as adults.’

Other data in the study found 27 per cent of 11-year-old girls and 24 per cent of 11-year-old boys in England think they are too fat, as do 31 per cent of girls and 23 per cent of boys in Wales.

By age 15, 43 per cent of girls and 29 per cent of boys in England think they are too fat, rising to 50 per cent of girls and 30 per cent of boys in Wales.

Latest childhood obesity data for England shows one in 10 children are too fat by the time they start primary school, rising to about one in four among Year 6. 

Obesity also takes a massive financial toll in the UK, with the resulting health consequences on loss working years, care costs, and price of NHS treatment costing the economy an estimated £100billion per year

Experts have pointed to a lack of exercise, and poor diets high in ultra-processed food, as being key drivers in the UK’s childhood obesity epidemic.

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