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Screen time isn’t the only contributor to sedentary children

It’s no secret that Australian children are becoming less and less active. In fact, four out of five Australian children don’t get the daily one hour of physical activity they need for good health.

It’s quite hard to fathom this statistic considering we are famous for our active outdoor lifestyle and our world-class parklands, facilities, sporting fields and cycle ways.

Why are our kids becoming so sedentary?

We are quick to blame excess screen time for children’s increasing sedentary behaviour and there’s no doubt that it has a large part to play. However, many people would be surprised to hear that the 2018 Report Card on Physical Activity in Children and Young People found that one of the leading contributors to sedentary behaviour is overscheduling our children’s time, allowing less time for ‘free’ play.

Nowadays, most Australian children are fortunate to have an array of after-school activities to choose from (piano lessons, singing, music, cricket, football, netball) and, obviously, parents are keen to provide their children with as much opportunity as possible, but this often means less time to simply play outside.

Even if children are playing organised sports, there is still a lot of time commuting to and from sport, standing around, waiting turns and taking instruction. This isn’t to say children shouldn’t be involved in after-school activities, it’s just to highlight that children can still meet activity goals without it.

But how? The Report Card has advised that co-participation as a family is the key. Given that lack of time is the number one barrier to children and parents being active (there is little time left in the day after school, work and sports), co-participation is a wonderful strategy.

Simply spending time playing together as a family in the outdoors, limits sedentary time, strengthens family relationships, develops social and emotional competency and improves the fitness of both parents and children.

Fundamental movement skills, unstructured play and a healthy adulthood

Fundamental movement skills (FMS) are the building blocks of all movement. They are the various motor skills such as running, balancing, kicking etc. and they form the basis for all physical activity that we do in sports, dance, gymnastics and other physical recreational activities.

Kids who do not master FMS are more likely to experience a decline in physical performance and drop out of physical activity later in life. Data shows that today’s kids cannot jump as far as kids from 30 years ago (not even close) meaning muscular fitness has declined.

Unstructured, rough and tumble play (especially with parents) naturally encourages children to explore, run, jump, balance, kick, catch, hang and twirl. These movements strengthen FMS and set a child up for a lifelong love for physical activity.

What are the guidelines for children’s physical activity?

The following recommendations apply for children’s physical activity levels:

Birth to 1 year: moving on the floor from birth, including ‘tummy time’.

1 to 5 years: at least 3 hours of being physically active, spread throughout the day.

5 to 12 years: at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.

This should include a variety of aerobic and weight-bearing activities.

Children should also limit the amount of time they spend sitting, and those aged over 5 should spend no more than 2 hours a day in front of a screen. This recommended maximum screen time drops to 1 hour for children aged 2 to 5, with no screen time at all recommended for children under 2.

Tips for encouraging physical activity

This physical inactivity pandemic requires a coordinated response. Not all kids want to get outside and play. Some kids would prefer to read a book, some do art, some don’t get home from school until late, and some just don’t live in areas where free play with friends is safe.

It’s about finding something that works for children and their families. Here are some ways to get started:

  • Build physical activity into the day – walking to school, riding to the shops, gardening or hanging the clothes on the line.
  • Make time to play outdoors with your children, especially when they are younger.
  • Reward children with activities – a trip to the park, a catch-up with friends at the beach or pool, or a ride on their bike.
  • Encourage active parenting – children, particularly adolescents, may not often listen to what you say, but they do notice what you DO.
  • Allow children the space and freedom to choose their own sports.
  • Where possible, don’t overschedule. If there is limited time between school/work and the evening, don’t feel pressured to fill the gap with structured activities. Outdoor family time can be just as effective.

If children are facing additional barriers to physical activity, parents should seek advice from their local Accredited Exercise Physiologist to help get their child moving safely.

Anna Campbell, AES, AEP, ESSAM

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