The Active-6 project led by researchers at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Exercise, Nutrition, and Health Sciences has been exploring how 10-11-year-old’s physical activity has changed since the pandemic. Here study manager Dr Danielle House provides an overview of a new paperon children’s club participation, and what this means for the future of children’s physical activity. https://ijbnpa.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12966-023-01499-x
Why physical activity is important
Physical activity is important for children’s mental and physical health and wellbeing. The UK Chief Medical Officer recommends that children should engage in an hour or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. This is physical activity that raises the heart rate, and makes you breathe faster and feel warmer. Yet, as little as 41% of children aged 10-11 years in the UK were meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines prior to the pandemic.
The Active-6 project
With the nationwide COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, children were unable to be active in the same way they were before. School and community facility closures reduced children’s opportunities to play with friends, attend active clubs, and do PE. While these restrictions were expected to impact children’s activity when they were in place, the Active-6 project investigated whether they had any lasting impact on children’s activity once they were removed.
To do this, we used devices to measure Year 6 children’s activity in 2021 and 2022 and compared these to data collected in 2017/18 from Year 6 children in the same schools in Bristol and the surrounding areas, including South Gloucestershire. We also conducted research interviews with parents, children, and school staff to help us understand the reasons for any changes.
It took a year of no lockdowns for physical activity to return to pre-pandemic levels
When children returned to school in Spring 2021, their moderate to vigorous physical activity was lower by 7-8 minutes and sedentary time was higher by 25 minutes per day compared to 2017/18 (1). Our research interviews revealed that children felt emotionally and physically fatigued as they had become used to the isolated and sedentary lifestyle of lockdowns (2). This led to withdrawal from activities they had previously enjoyed, such as playing with friends and attending active clubs.
This decrease in activity did not last, as we found that children’s activity returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2022, though sedentary time remained higher (3). However, children’s activity levels are still not high enough, with 59% of the children we measured not meeting recommended levels.
The new normal of children’s physical activity
Although children’s activity levels have returned, the pandemic has changed the way children are active, which we have called the “new normal” for children’s physical activity (4). Children’s activity is now more dependent on structured activities, such as active clubs, and less dependent on unstructured activities, such as playing with friends after school. This change stems from habits formed under long periods of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, such as more screen-viewing at home and less spontaneous trips outside the house. A legacy of poorer mental health and an interruption to emotional, physical, and social skills also made meeting activity guidelines more difficult for many children.
Changes to club participation
We found that the types of clubs children were attending before and after lockdowns had changed. Children are now attending more active clubs based at their schools and less of those based in the community (5). The increased cost of living and legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic were drivers behind this change, with families describing community clubs as a luxury that many were unable to afford. The average cost of a community club was almost double that of a school club, whereas 50% of school clubs provided to families for free. Moreover, 45% of parents said their child would attend more community clubs if they were cheaper, and families with lower socioeconomic position were impacted the most.
However, schools were struggling to meet this increased demand despite increasing their active club provision. This largely relied on school staff volunteering their time which is challenging in the post-lockdown primary school environment that has become even more pressured (6). This meant that many children were left on waiting lists, with children who attended school-based active clubs going to fewer clubs per week than before the pandemic. The PE and Sport Premium were a key part of affordable school club provision, with 62% of school active clubs partially or wholly subsidised to parents.
What this means for the future of children’s physical activity
The number of children who are sufficiently active remains very low post-pandemic. A new normal for children’s physical activity that relies on organised activities has emerged, with greater dependence on school-based active clubs. We need to support schools to deliver cheap and convenient clubs, and community clubs who provide vital and highly skilled opportunities for children.
For more information about research methods, peer-reviewed scientific publications, and other project information, please visit our project website (https://www.actify.org.uk/active-6).
1. Salway, R., Foster, C., de Vocht, F. et al. Accelerometer-measured physical activity and sedentary time among children and their parents in the UK before and after COVID-19 lockdowns: a natural experiment. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 19, 51 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-022-01290-4
2. Walker, R., House, D., Emm-Collison, L. et al. A multi-perspective qualitative exploration of the reasons for changes in the physical activity among 10-11-year-old children following the easing of the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK in 2021. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 19, 114 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-022-01356-3
3. Jago, R., Salway, R., House, D. et al. Short and medium-term effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns on child and parent accelerometer-measured physical activity and sedentary time: a natural experiment. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 20, 42 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-023-01441-1
4. Walker, R., House, D., Salway, R. et al. The new normal for children's physical activity and screen viewing: a multi-perspective qualitative analysis of behaviours a year after the COVID-19 lockdowns in the UK. BMC Public Health 23, 1432 (2023) https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-023-16021-y
5. Walker, R., Salway, R., House, D. et al. The status of active after-school clubs among primary school children in England (UK) after the COVD-19 lockdowns: implications for policy and practice. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. In Press. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-023-01499-x
6. House, D., Walker, R., Salway, R. et al. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the physical activity environment in English primary schools: A multi-perspective qualitative analysis. Public Health Research. In Press.