Children Are Already Less Active by Age 7, Study Finds

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Children’s physical activity levels may be slowing to a walk much sooner than researchers had previously thought, according to a new study appearing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

In fact, many children see a rapid decline in exercise levels after the age of 7 and not during the teen years — a startling revelation that has researchers rethinking their position on public health awareness.

Credit: Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“Our study has found that all the boys and girls we assessed were taking paths which were inconsistent with the orthodox view that physical activity begins to decline at adolescence, declines much more rapidly at adolescence or declines much more rapidly in adolescent girls than boys,” said lead researcher John Reilly, a professor with the University of Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences and Health in Glasgow.

The long-term study, which took place in the northeastern part of England, tracked physical activity levels among approximately 400 children. Using an exercise monitor that the children wore during weeklong intervals, the researchers measured exercise levels when the children were ages 7, 9, 12 and 15.

They discovered that exercise levels tailed off after age 7 in most of the kids. For example:

  • 61 percent of boys saw a gradual decrease in activity levels after the age of 7, and 17 percent of boys saw a rapid decline in exercise after the age of 7.
  • 62 percent of girls saw a gradual decline after age 7, with 19 percent of girls seeing a sharp decline.
  • Just 3 percent of boys had low levels of physical activity at age 7, compared to 19 percent of girls with a low level at the same age.

However, the researchers found that about one in five boys, or 19 percent, maintained “stable levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity” throughout the duration of the study.

“We did not set out to examine the reasons behind the changes, but finding out why around one in five of the boys managed to maintain levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity throughout the study period might help to inform future policy and practice,” noted Reilly.

Related: Exercise During Pregnancy Reduces Health Risks in Children

The researchers are careful to note that the results pertain to a specific geographic location and may not be representative of other countries. However, the new research might be a wake-up call to public health officials — the researchers believe that the new data can help revise common misconceptions about exercise levels among children and steer public health programs to better engage young children.

Credit: Thijs Knaap/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“Future research and public health policy should focus on preventing the decline in physical activity, which begins in childhood, not adolescence, and providing an improved understanding of the determinants of the different physical activity trajectories, including an understanding of the relative importance of biological and environmental influences,” concluded Reilly.

In the U.S., rates of childhood obesity have been on the rise for years and poor nutritional choices, such as high rates of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, are fueling the trend.

Of course, the benefits of physical activity in children are tremendous — less risk of obesity, diabetes, blood pressure and a host of other health challenges. If you want to get your little ones moving, KidsHealth offers five tips to promote less screen time and more physical play time.

Related: Screen Time Could Lead to Increased Risk of Diabetes in Children

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.