Image Credit source: PTI
For children, when schools are closed, walking or cycling to school is stopped, physical education classes are closed, cannot go to the playground and there are no clubs after school.
During the Covid pandemic in the UK, the lockdown and school closures led to significant changes in children’s play, jumping and other physical activities. Although the rules regarding COVID restrictions varied around the world, most countries experienced some level of restrictions for some time. Unsurprisingly, when everything is shut down and people are instructed to stay at home as much as possible, the activity level goes down. For children, when schools are closed, walking or cycling to school is stopped, physical education classes are closed, cannot go to the playground and there are no clubs after school. Where their access to parks and playgrounds is restricted, and when sports clubs and facilities are closed, children’s activity is reduced.
Evidence from around the world suggests and it is no surprise that children were exercising less when they were at home during the pandemic. But what happened when restrictions began to be lifted and schools reopened? Our new research shows that physical activity among children in the UK did not return to pre-pandemic levels.
what did we do
In our study, we measured the physical activity levels of 393 children aged 10-11 years and their parents from 23 primary schools in the Bristol area between May and December 2021. At this time, schools and many other places had reopened, and most restrictions on social interaction were lifted. We then compared the participants’ activity levels with data from 1,296 children (aged 10-11 years) and their parents, collected three years ago. Using information from this earlier research, we were able to see whether there was a difference in child and parent physical activity when we conducted our study, compared to before the pandemic.
To measure activity during the study both times, each child wore an accelerometer, a small device worn on the hip similar to a very accurate pedometer. For each child, we calculated the average time spent doing moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. This is an activity that makes children a little hot, a little sweaty and short of breath. The UK’s Chief Medical Officer recommends that all children and young people do an hour of this type of activity every day.
Compared to before the pandemic, children averaged about eight minutes less moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day in 2021 – a 13% drop. We also saw an increase in sedentary time of about half an hour per day during the week and 15 minutes on the weekend. However, unlike some of the studies conducted during the COVID lockdown, we did not see a difference based on gender or socio-economic background. Physical activity decreased and sedentary time was almost the same amount higher in all groups.
We found no difference in parental physical activity in our study when compared with our pre-Covid group. Unlike their children, parents brought down the drop in physical activity during the lockdown to a normal level after the restrictions were lifted.
Data collection and research are difficult during a pandemic. Some of our data collection was done remotely and some in person, while due to the outbreak of COVID in schools, we sometimes had to reschedule data collection at a shorter time. And it is always possible that the trends we observe may have reasons other than the Covid pandemic.
Now it is important to see if this pattern continues or changes over time. If low levels of physical activity persist, we need to understand what is causing it – and what we can do to encourage children to be more active again.