A common complaint among parents is that their children and teenagers are spending an increasing amount of time engaged in sedentary activities.
Many have long suspected that the digital revolution, which has brought a vast range of screen-based devices into our homes in recent decades, has discouraged them from participating in the physical activities that were more common in the past.
A new report by the UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO) has reaffirmed this suspicion, and issued a call for youngsters to ditch their screens for the sake of their health.
The study, which gathered data from 1.6 million children across 146 countries between 2001 and 2016, found that a whopping 81 per cent of children globally do not get the recommended one hour of exercise per day.
Researchers also found there is a gender gap, with 85 per cent of girls displaying worryingly high levels of inactivity across all countries, compared to 78 per cent of boys.
The largest gaps in activity levels between girls and boys were found in the US and Ireland. In these two countries, only 64 per cent of boys are inactive compared to 81 per cent of girls.
Not only were girls found to be less active in all but four countries (Tonga, Samoa, Afghanistan, and Zambia), but 73 per cent of countries saw this gap grow between 2001 and 2016.
While levels of activity among boys showed slight improvement during this time, there was no change for girls during this period.
In South Asia, lower rates of inactivity were found in boys, with Bangladesh and India at 63 per cent and 72 per cent, respectively, whilst these countries also have the highest levels of inactivity for girls.
It is thought that the obsession with cricket in this region keeps boys active, whilst social and cultural factors are likely to limit girls’ participation in sports and other activities.
The study confirmed that the leisure activities that children and adolescents are engaging in all over the world have become more sedentary and screen-based, with computers, tablets, smartphones, and video games found in almost every home.
A study carried out by The Conversation in 2017 asked children about the reasons behind their inactivity, and found that hectic family lifestyles can also negatively influence children’s activity levels.
They recommended that parents become better role models for their children by adopting healthier habits themselves, whilst also making time for their children and participating in activities together.
They suggest parents achieve this through lifestyle changes such as walking or cycling to school, and finding ways to be active together indoors.
The implications of an inactive lifestyle are serious, since it can lead to increased risks of obesity and diabetes, as well as negatively affecting children’s mental health and wellbeing, social skills, concentration levels, and academic performance.
The WHO recommends a minimum of 60 minutes of activity per day for children, to promote muscular fitness, bone health, cardiovascular strength, and immunity.
Regular exercise also has a positive effect on body weight, and social and cognitive skills.
Setting these healthy habits early on is also important, since regular activity can help prevent a wide range of diseases later in life, such as heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes.
The authors of the study advocate for new, more effective policies and programmes to encourage young people to get active, as well as a need for greater national and local leadership.
They said that this could be achieved through initiatives in education, urban planning, and road safety. Schools should emphasise physical education, sports, and active recreation opportunities.
Cities could be redesigned to place schools and shops near to large parts of the population, and improving walking and cycling route safety can encourage youngsters to use active forms of transport.
Researchers are particularly concerned by the gender gap, and highlighted the urgency of meeting the needs and interests of girls in order to get them to lead more active lifestyles.
They also emphasised the need for governments to address the social, economic, cultural, technological, and environmental factors underlying the gap.
One of the most important things parents can do to encourage their children to be more active is to help them find fun activities that they enjoy
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