Healthy Kids…. Are they getting enough physical activity?

Firstly let me introduce myself, my name is Tasha and I am Kelly’s (AKA Fit M.U.Ms) sister-in-law, I have two beautiful girls who are three and four months old, I have an amazing husband, I love being physically active and making delicious and healthy meals/snacks for my family and friends and I have PhD in Sport/Health Science.

Before doing my PhD, which examined the effects of a strength training program for overweight and obese teenage boys on their self-esteem, I completed my undergraduate degree in Human Movement and then went on to complete my Honours degree which focused on what physical attributes are important for elite rowing success. I was very lucky, once I finished my PhD, to then step into the role of Research Fellow for Active Healthy Kids Australia (AHKA).

Active Healthy Kids Australia logo.

Active Healthy Kids Australia logo.

Active Healthy Kids Australia is a collaboration between various Universities and Research Institutes from across Australia which have a vested interest in increasing the physical activity levels of children under the age of 18. On May 21 of this year AHKA released its inaugural Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Young people which brings together the best available evidence (i.e. the most recent and highest quality research surveys and studies)  to assign letter grades to 12 different physical activity indicators.

The Report Card indicators examine physical activity behaviours or the ways in which kids are physically active (Overall Physical Activity, Organised Sport Participation, Physical Education and Physical Activity Participation in Schools, Active Play, Active Transport and Sedentary Behaviours), the settings and sources of influence which can impact upon the physical activity kids do (School Environment, Family and Peers and Community and the Built Environment), the Government Strategies and Investments in place to facilitate physical activity participation and also physical traits which relate to physical activity (Aerobic Fitness and Movement Skills). The Report Card can be downloaded from the AHKA website (www.activehealthykidsaustralia.com.au) and the grades work like those found in your typical school report card, an A means we are doing really well with a majority of Australian children and young people and an F means we are failing.

2014 AHKA Report Card front cover.

2014 AHKA Report Card front cover.

Overall the results from the Report Card are not great. If you look at the table below you can see as a nation we are almost failing for Overall Physical Activity Levels, Active Transport and Sedentary Behaviours which means kids are not moving enough and engaging in screen time (time spent using electronic media such as television, video games and iPads or tablets for entertainment purposes) more than they should be.

Indicator Grade
Overall Physical Activity Levels D-
Organised Sport Participation B-
Physical Education and Physical Activity Participation in Schools INC*
Active Play INC*
Active Transport D
Sedentary Behaviours D-
School Environment B-
Family and Peers C
Community and the Built Environment A-
Government Strategies and Investments C+
Aerobic Fitness INC*
Movement Skills INC*

*INC = Incomplete grade given because the data available was not nationally representative.

So as a parent I know most of you are probably saying, well what does that mean for me and my children? That question cannot be answered until another one is asked. How much physical activity is enough? The Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing released its updated physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines earlier this year (http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/health-pubhlth-strateg-phys-act-guidelines) , however I am sure there is a number of you reading this who have never heard of such guidelines let alone know what they are as the government does not tend to publicise and promote these as much as they should.

The guidelines state that children aged 2-4 years should accumulate at least three hours of physical activity and should not engage in more than one hour of screen time every day. Children aged 5-17 years should accumulate at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity (activity that requires children to exert some effort [moderate] or makes them ‘huff and puff’ [vigorous]) and should not engage in more than two hours of screen time every day.

So why, is it important for children to be meeting the physical activity guidelines? The research shows that children who accumulate the minimum amount of recommended physical activity every day are at a lower risk of conditions including overweight and obesity, Type II Diabetes and metabolic syndrome, are more likely to see improvements in their aerobic fitness and bone health and experience positive mental health benefits. But they shouldn’t just stop once they have achieved the minimum amount, the more they can do the better. However, despite these known health benefits only 19% of Australians aged 5-17 are participating in at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.

When I talk to parents a number of them say “my child plays sport, they get plenty of physical activity”. This statement is sometimes true, but the theme of this year’s Report Card “Is Sport Enough?” focuses on the fact that participating in organised sport on its own is normally not enough for children to meet the minimum physical activity recommendations. If we look at this a little more closely a child who participates in sport for one season typically has 1-2 trainings per week plus a competitive game which in total takes up three to four hours per week and then during each of the sessions children will not be active for the entire time. So as you can see while sport participation boasts a wide range of benefits (e.g. social interaction, learning new skills, self-discipline) beyond just physical activity participation, it is usually not enough as the sole outlet for physical activity especially when other areas (e.g. active transport and sedentary behaviours) are lacking.

So as parents, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, grandparents, teachers and other influential people to the children around us what should we be mindful of? I think it is important that we take every opportunity we can to be active no matter how little time we have available. Because children don’t have to meet the guidelines in one long bout of activity they can accumulate activity over the entire day, and let’s be honest 10 or 15 minute bursts of activity spaced out over the day is a lot more achievable for children given their typical daily schedules and commitments. When looking at the other physical activity behaviours I have listed a few suggestions/considerations that may help you and your family be more active every day:

Active Play

It’s really important we give children as many opportunities to just play with no rules, restrictions or guidelines to follow. Not only does active play typically involve lots of ‘huff and puff’ (with no rules etc. less stoppages) but it also lets kids use their imagination and explore the environment around them. Little ways to encourage this is to let kids play outside in different environments, provide them with different types of equipment and props they can use and keep some in the car so you can stop anywhere when you have some spare time and make sure you go out and play with them.

Active Transport

While I completely understand that there are some places which are not practical or logistically possible to walk or ride a bike to, it is important we are mindful of which trips we can undertake using active transport. To get your kids walking/riding/scooting to more places you could drop them off/park the car a distance away from your destination (school is a good example), talk to other parents from your school and see if you could organise walking groups to and or from school and pick one trip that needs to be made every weekend and get the kids involved in planning how you will use active transport to get some or all of the way there.

 Sedentary Behaviours

It is unrealistic to stop children from watching television, playing video games and using computers all together but, it is important that they have boundaries and they know why those boundaries are there. Little things like not allowing children to have a television in their bedrooms and engaging with them in more family based physical activity rather than sitting down to watch television at night or on the weekends can help reduce their screen time and increase their physical activity.

Most importantly, as Fit M.U.M has already said a number of times, kids model our behaviour and so it is important we don’t get too caught up in doing things to only increase their activity levels but also look at every opportunity as a way of increasing your activity levels too. Remember not everything has to be structured and part of a routine, especially  when we can obtain the same benefits from a simple game of rough and tumble with our kids in the backyard or a bike ride/walk to the local shops and most importantly we get to do it with the little people we care for most.

I challenge all of you this week to sit down with your family and decide on what extra physical activity you could do in replace of something else – it doesn’t have to be much and it can fit in wherever possible. But who knows, this one little thing might become a weekly occurrence and then the possibilities are endless. Make sure you share with us on Fit M.U.Ms blog or facebook page here what extra bit of physical activity you and your family did and how you made it work with your family schedule.

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