New research has revealed a dramatic drop in the activity levels of primary school pupils, with children becoming 17 minutes less active per week every year between the ages of six and 11.

A study by Bristol University found that in Year 1, 61% of children did at least an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) every day - the level recommended by the UK Chief Medical Officers. Yet by Year 6, only 41% achieved this target - and the decline is particularly steep for girls, dropping from 54% to 28% by the time they finish primary school. 

The study, funded by the British Heart Foundation and published in the International Journal of Obesity, monitored the activity of more than 2,000 children from 57 schools across south west England between 2012 and 2018. Children wore an accelerometer for five days, including two weekend days, which assessed how many minutes per day they were active enough to get slightly out of breath and sweaty.

Researchers also examined how body mass index (BMI) is associated with physical activity in childhood, and whether associations change as children age. Russ Jago, Professor of Paediatric Physical Activity and Public Health at the University of Bristol, said: “Evaluating patterns of physical activity across childhood is an important way to identify key ages in which to intervene to change behaviour – and establish healthy habits for life.

“These numbers prove that more needs be done to ensure children keep active as they approach adolescence. This isn’t about getting children to exercise more, but rather maintaining their activity levels. Developing early intervention strategies that help children retain activity levels could include after school physical activity programmes, focusing on participation and enjoyment in addition to popular sports – and a greater emphasis on promoting weekend activities.”

The study coincides with data from the 2017/18 National Child Measurement Programme showing that 10% of four to five-year-olds and 20% of 10 to 11 year olds in England were obese. Ninety percent of children who are obese aged three remain overweight or obese in adolescence.

BHF Associate Medical Director Professor Jeremy Pearson said: “Almost a third of children in the UK weigh more than they should, while one in four primary school children are not meeting the recommended levels of exercise. We know that children living with obesity are more likely to become obese adults, putting them at increased risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases and their risk factors - such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure - later in life.

“Staying active must be combined with policies that help families make healthy and informed choices, such as a 9pm watershed on junk food marketing and restricting the promotion of unhealthy foods.”

According to the study, physical activity is associated with improved psychological wellbeing and lower levels of cardiometabolic risk factors among children and adolescents. Physical activity levels increase between the ages of three and six, appearing to peak around the age that children start school. After this time, several studies have shown that physical activity declines and sedentary time increases between six and 15, with girls less active than boys across all age groups.

NHS guidelines on physical activity for children suggest exercise such as bike riding, playground activities, swimming, football, hopping and skipping. Moderate activity should warm children up and cause them to breathe harder but they should still be able to carry on a conversation, while vigorous activity will make it harder to keep talking.

As well as improving cardiovascular health and helping children maintain a healthy weight, exercise improves bone health and self-confidence, as well as helping children develop new social skills. Read our guide to keeping your family active this winter and make physical activity your new year’s resolution!