Most children getting less than the recommended amount of physical activity to grow up healthily, survey finds

Kathy Oxtoby
Thursday, May 19, 2022

A survey of parents for children’s charity the Early Intervention Foundation, shows there are differences when it comes to levels of physical activity between poorer children and more privileged children, and the cost of living may worsen the situation.

A survey of 1,000 parents for children’s charity, the Early Intervention Foundation, has found that only 19 per cent of children between the ages of one and five get more than three hours of physical activity a day. This means most children are getting less than the officially recommended amount needed to grow up healthily, the charity said. 

In households earning under £30,000 this was only 13 per cent, versus 23 per cent where the household income was over £50,000, the survey found.

In the context of widening post-lockdown health disparities, particularly along socio-economic lines, and a growing obesity gap, the charity said the lack of physical activity amongst children under six was ‘concerning’.  

Cost of accessing safe spaces to play 

The Early Intervention Foundation’s 2021 report ‘Growing up in the Covid-19 pandemic: An evidence review of the impact of pandemic life on physical development in the early years,’ had previously found ‘the majority of studies of older children or studies from other countries report a decrease in physical activity as well as a decrease in positive attitudes towards physical activity as a result of Covid-19’.

This new survey, carried out by YouGov, of UK parents of under sixes found only four in 10 (40 per cent) children had increased their physical activity since the most recent lockdown lifted. More than one in ten (11 per cent) of households with an income under £30,000 believed their child’s physical activity will be less than last summer, compared to only three per cent of households with income over £50,000. 

Cost is a particular factor preventing more physical activity amongst children under six. The cost of living crisis therefore could further worsen health disparities and discourage parents from taking young children to indoor or outdoor play areas, such as public parks, indoor play centres and children’s centres, the charity warned.  

More than a quarter (27 per cent) of parents surveyed stated the cost of accessing spaces for physical activity - such as soft play areas or classes - was a factor preventing their child from doing more physical activity. Cost is the most cited factor for households with an income under £30,000, whereas a lack of time was the most cited reason by those with higher incomes (over £50,000).  

Of those who said their child did not have access to as many play and open spaces as they would like, a fifth (21 per cent) said the main reason for this was due to the poor standard of play facilities and open spaces near them.  

In addition, 12 per cent of parents stated play or outdoor space feel unsafe or dangerous, with 21 per cent of households with incomes under £30,000 stating this was the main reason, compared to just five per cent of households with incomes over £50,000. 

‘Parents need access to affordable and safe spaces’

Dr Jo Casebourne, chief executive at the Early Intervention Foundation said: ‘In light of growing health disparities between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers, it is concerning to know that so many parents are worried about the cost of taking their child to a play area. 

‘We think parents, especially those from low-income households, need access to affordable and safe spaces and we need to ensure that children’s physical activity isn’t forgotten about post-lockdown. Getting enough physical activity in the early years is essential for children’s physical and mental wellbeing, as well as their development throughout childhood and positive health outcomes later in life.” 

‘Andrea Leadsom’s Best Start for Life review and Michael Marmot’s 10 Years On report are both clear on how important the early years are, and how children living in poorer households have significantly worse health outcomes than other children – and that’s before we account for the current challenges facing many families’ finances,’  Dr Casebourne said.

In the short-term, to ensure health disparities do not become embedded and continue widening, the charity recommended that the Government continues to build on its commitments outlined in the most recent Spending Review to provide more comprehensive support for families. This included the stated investment in breastfeeding services, parent-infant mental support, and funding the rollout of Family Hubs.  

The charity also said the Government needed to ensure physical activity could be supported through early childhood education settings, schools and Family Hubs, once the latter are established. To complement this, the Early Intervention Foundation recommended prioritising providing children – especially those from low-income households – with access to affordable and safe play and open spaces.  

Longer-term, the charity said there was a need to support the trialing of promising interventions that work with families or caregivers to foster early physical development - such as support specifically designed to increase physical activity and improve healthy eating habits and routines, as well as other lifestyle changes. If found to be effective, these interventions could be scaled up across the country to a similar level as the catch-up literacy programmes currently funded by the Government, the charity said. 


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