Children and adolescents do not get enough physical activity: new study sounds like a health warning

(MENAFN- The Conversation) Physical inactivity is the fourth cause of death worldwide. It is also associated with chronic diseases and disability. Recent research estimates that the world could see nearly 500 million new cases of major chronic diseases by 2030 if people do not become more active. Regular physical activity helps prevent and control many chronic diseases. Popular ways to be physically active include walking, cycling, and playing sports.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that children and adolescents (ages 5 to 17) engage in an average of at least 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity. To do this, vigorous aerobic activities must be incorporated, as well as those that strengthen muscles and bones, at least three days a week. It is also recommended that children spend no more than two hours a day in front of a recreational screen. These recommendations aim to improve children’s physical and mental health, as well as their cognitive outcomes.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, physical activity among children and adolescents was already below recommended levels. In 2016, 81% of adolescents worldwide between 11 and 17 years old considered themselves physically inactive. Girls were less active than boys.

The pandemic has made things worse. Physical inactivity in children and adolescents has become a global public health priority. It is now included in global action plans.

For example, using 2016 as a benchmark, the WHO through its Global Action Plan on Physical Activity aimed to reduce the prevalence of physical inactivity among adolescents by 15 percentage points by 2030. This call to action also implored other international organizations and governments that will help track progress in promoting physical activity among children and adolescents.

In response to this global physical inactivity crisis, the international call to action, and the need to systematically collect comparable data, the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance recently published a major study, the first to provide a comprehensive assessment of physical activity among children. and adolescents. . Published in October 2022, the study included data collected before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were among 682 experts who evaluated 10 common physical activity indicators for children and adolescents around the world.

Our study shows that physical activity among children and adolescents has not improved. About a third of children and adolescents globally were sufficiently physically active, while just over a third met the recreational screen time recommendation for better health and well-being. These findings indicate that a significant proportion of children and adolescents who do not meet recommended physical activity guidelines are at increased risk of experiencing negative outcomes and developing related chronic diseases at a much younger age.

COVID effect

Most experts involved in our study agree that the childhood physical inactivity crisis is an ongoing public health challenge and the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have made it worse. In the survey, more than 90% of experts reported that COVID-19 had a negative impact on children’s sedentary behaviors, organized sport and physical activity. Our findings are supported by numerous studies.

Read more: This is what children need to move, play and sleep in their early years

Lockdowns imposed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of schools and public parks, hampering children’s physical activity levels. Research suggests that children’s moderate to vigorous physical activity decreased by 17 minutes per day during the pandemic. That represents a reduction of almost a third of the recommended daily activity. Another global study representing 187 countries showed a collective 27.3% decrease in people’s daily step counts after 30 days of COVID-19-related restrictions.

Our studio

Four African countries participated in our study: Botswana, Ethiopia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The grade ranged from as high as A+ (vast majority, 94%-100% of children and adolescents met recommended levels) to as low as F (less than 20% met recommended levels).

Children and adolescents in the four African countries were marginally more physically active than children in the rest of the world. They received C- (47% to 53% met recommendations) for overall physical activity compared to D (27% to 33% met recommendations) for the rest of the world. More children and adolescents in African countries used active transportation (B-; 60%-66%), were less sedentary (C-; 40%-46%), and were in better physical shape (C+; 54%-59% ), compared to the rest of the world (C-, D+ and C-) respectively.

An important success story from this global comparison of ratings is that, despite the lack of infrastructure, the average ratings of individual behaviors were generally better for African countries. This could reflect a need rather than a choice. For example, children might be forced to walk to school because there is no affordable transportation. However, it shows that it is still possible to promote healthy lifestyles even when resources are limited.

Factors such as having supportive family and friends, safer communities, positive school environments, and adequate resources are often associated with better participation in physical activity. The average ratings of these sources of influence were generally lower for the four African countries than those for the rest of the world. These findings demonstrate challenges related to community safety, the overall lack of infrastructure and funding to support healthy behaviors for children and adolescents in African countries.

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Overall, there was not enough data to accurately rate all indicators for African countries. Botswana was the only country to which we were able to assign scores for each of the 10 common indicators. The other three countries had at least one incomplete grade each. Lack of representative data is a common and often recurring problem in many low- and middle-income countries. It also means that our findings should be interpreted with caution. For example, we cannot say with certainty that these findings are representative of all children and adolescents in these four countries or the region as a whole.

Way forward

In many parts of Africa, the prevalence of infectious and other diseases justifiably demands attention and resources. These needs may compete with messages about physical inactivity, whose negative impact may be silent but still detrimental to the population’s health.

We need to persistently advocate for policies and practices, anchored in the African context, and promote equitable opportunities for children to engage in physical activity. These may include active school breaks and after-school programs. Countries must guarantee access to safe and free public spaces, green spaces, playgrounds and sports facilities.

Finally, researchers and public health professionals should monitor progress toward meeting WHO goals.

The conversation

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