During the COVID pandemic, lockdowns and school closures brought about significant changes to children’s opportunities to be active. While the precise rules varied around the world, most countries experienced some level of restrictions for a time.
Unsurprisingly, when everything is closed and the guidance is to stay at home where possible, activity levels go down. For children, when schools are closed, there’s no walking or cycling to school, no physical education lessons, no playing in the playground and no clubs after school. Where their access to parks and play areas is restricted, and when sports clubs and facilities are closed, kids lose further opportunities to be active.
So it’s not surprising that evidence from around the world shows children were doing less exercise at the height of the pandemic. But what about when restrictions began to lift, and schools reopened? Our new research suggests physical activity among children in the UK didn’t bounce back to pre-pandemic levels.
What we did
In our study, we measured the physical activity levels of 393 children aged 10-11 and their parents, recruited from 23 primary schools in the Bristol area between May and December 2021. At this time, schools and many other venues had re-opened, and during that summer most legal limits on social contact were removed.
We then compared participants’ activity levels with data from 1,296 children (also aged 10-11) and their parents from the same schools gathered three years earlier. By using information from this earlier research, we were able to see if there were differences in child and parent physical activity when we conducted our study, compared with before the pandemic.
To measure activity at both time points, each child wore an accelerometer, a small device worn at the hip that is like a very accurate pedometer. For each child, we calculated the average time spent doing moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day.
This is activity that gets children slightly hot, slightly sweaty and out of breath. The UK chief medical officers recommend that all children and young people should do an hour of this type of activity every day.
We also calculated the children’s average sedentary time – time spent sitting down or not moving very much – and collected information about travel to school, after-school clubs and screen viewing from both children and parents via questionnaires.
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We found that even though most COVID restrictions had been lifted by the time we collected our data, the children were less active compared to kids of a similar age before the pandemic.
On average, children did around eight minutes less moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day in 2021, compared with before the pandemic – a drop of 13%.
We also saw a rise in sedentary time of nearly half an hour per day during the week, and of 15 minutes at weekends. However, unlike some studies undertaken during COVID lockdowns, we didn’t see differences by gender or socio-economic background – physical activity fell and sedentary time was higher in all groups by about the same amounts.
We also found no difference in the physical activity of the parents in our study, when compared with our pre-COVID group. So unlike their children, any drop in physical activity parents might have experienced during lockdown reverted to normal levels.
It’s tricky doing data collection and research during a pandemic. Some of our data collection was done remotely and some in person, while COVID outbreaks in schools meant we sometimes had to reschedule data collections at short notice. And it’s always possible that something other than the COVID pandemic is responsible for the trends we observed – although it’s difficult to imagine what, especially given the evidence from other studies and countries.
It’s important now to see if this pattern continues or changes over time. If the lower levels of physical activity do persist, we need to understand what’s causing this – and what we can do to encourage children to be more active again. We plan to explore these issues further in the next phase of our study, but we also need wider research in other parts of the UK, and other countries, to fully understand the scale of the problem.
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Physical activity is very important for children’s health and wellbeing. It’s a concern if what we perceived would be short-term reductions in activity during the pandemic may, in fact, be longer-lasting. Families, schools and communities need to work together to make sure the opportunities are there for all children to be physically active as we emerge from the COVID pandemic.
Ruth Salway receives funding from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).