Skip to main content

NEW UK research suggests the Covid-19 pandemic may have forced the decline in children’s participation in sport and physical activity to kick in at a younger age.

The study, led by the University of Bristol, found that by the end of 2021 little more than a third (36%) were meeting the national recommended physical activity guidelines, and experiencing 10 minutes less activity – and 25 minutes more sedentary time – on weekends than weekdays.

The National Institute of Health Research-funded study recruited 393 children and their parents, from 23 schools in the Bristol area, and they wore an accelerometer to measure intensity of physical activity, and answered a questionnaire. This information was compared with data from 1,296 children and their parents from 50 schools in the same area prior to the pandemic.

The research showed 10 to 11-year-olds took part in an average of 56 minutes – the recommendation is for an hour – of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity during weekdays from last April to December. This represented a drop of eight minutes on average (13%), than that of children of a similar age before the pandemic.

OSS analysis of Scottish pre-pandemic figures conducted by Nick Rowe in 2019 here, showed that Scotland’s activity levels in children remained relatively high up to the age of 10-11 years, with a lifelong decline only beginning through the transition phase to secondary education. The Bristol study suggests that Covid may be bringing that drop-off forward with fewer primary-age children returning to activity post-pandemic. There will be many reasons for this, however, with community facility access and school activity, particularly extra-curricular sport, still not yet restored to pre-pandemic levels.

However, the Bristol report’s senior author, Russ Jago, Professor of Physical Activity and Public Health, was surprised at the extent of the fall in post-pandemic activity levels and concerned at how it might be restored. He said: “These findings highlight a greater need to work with children, families, schools, and communities to maximise the opportunities for children to be physically active, as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The study’s first author Dr Ruth Salway, a Statistician at the university’s School for Policy Studies, stressed that the same methods were used pre and post pandemic, and agreed that it suggested new unhealthy habits in children had formed in 2020-21.

“The data clearly demonstrates children’s physical activity had deteriorated once the restrictions were lifted,”e she said. “This emphasises the importance of understanding how such habits change over time, so appropriate support and interventions can be introduced as normality resumes.”

The UK’s Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) recommend all children and young people should take part in an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) each day – activity that gets children slightly hot, sweaty and out of breath. The Chief Medical Officers also advise children should limit the amount of time they spend being sedentary.

The OSS will launch a new Scottish nationwide study in August with the Data for Children Collaborative, Abertay University and other partners, which will analyse all relevant data and seek to understand changes to 5-18-year-old’s activity levels in Scotland, pre, during and post the Covid pandemic.

Read the full paper below.

Bristol study - children's PA levels May 2022