Day-to-day exercise ‘largely disappearing from young people’s lives’

The study, published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and covering 44 countries, shows England, Wales and Scotland performing poorly on markers such as day-to-day exercise like brisk walking, while not all children have breakfast on a school day.

While there have been improvements in areas such as children eating daily fruit and vegetables, youngsters are still not consuming enough to meet healthy eating recommendations.

Furthermore, there are stark differences – particularly in the UK – between children from affluent families and those who are poorer, with youngsters from poorer backgrounds far less likely to eat well or exercise.

The survey looked at the lives of children aged 11, 13 and 15 living in Europe, Central Asia and Canada.

It included more than 4,000 children in England, 4,000 in Scotland plus children in Welsh schools.

The data showed that 30% of girls and 18% of boys in England are inactive across all age groups surveyed, while the figure in Wales is 27% for girls and 17% for boys.

In Scotland, 21% of girls are inactive, alongside 12% of boys.

By age 15, just 11% of girls and 16% of boys in England do at least 60 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, which can include things like brisk walking, cycling or rollerblading.

The figure was 7% of girls and 16% of boys in Wales and 12% of girls and 21% of boys in Scotland.

The figures put England and Wales near the bottom of the global table, and below Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Norway and Croatia.

Things are better for more vigorous activity, such as team sports, but the UK still performs below the average for all countries in the study.

Dr Jo Inchley, international co-ordinator for the study, called Health Behaviour In School-Aged Children, and from the University of Glasgow, told the PA news agency: “In the UK, we’re consistently low on physical activity.

“We do see relatively high levels of young people involved in what we call vigorous activities, that might be sort of organised sports… But we’ve got big gender differences and big socio-economic differences.

“At age 15, we’ve got two thirds of boys in the UK, roughly, who are taking part in vigorous physical activity four or more times a week, but only a third of girls.

“So that’s twice as many boys as girls.

“On more day-to-day moderate to vigorous physical activity, where the heart is beating a little bit faster but it’s not high-impact exercise, that’s largely disappearing from young people’s lives.

“So previously, when young people would have spent a lot of time outdoors just playing in the local streets or walking to friends’ houses or going to the park, that (figure) would have been a lot a lot higher.

“Now we’re really seeing that coming down very low. I think that’s quite worrying because that can have a big impact on young people’s health and wellbeing.”

When it comes to eating breakfast before school, which experts say is a good healthy eating habit for children, some 37% of 13-year-old girls and 59% of boys in England eat breakfast on weekdays, while the figure is 33% and 54% respectively in Wales and 36% and 61% in Scotland.

This is below other countries including Portugal, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and Norway.

Girls in England, Wales and Scotland are less likely to eat breakfast than the average for all countries in the study.

By age 15, just 35% of girls in England eat breakfast daily on weekdays (below average for all countries), as do 51% of boys.

When it comes to fruit, 46% of girls and 43% of boys aged 11 in England eat fruit daily, as do 38% of girls and 35% of boys in Wales and 54% of girls and 52% of boys in Scotland.

Dr Inchley said: “I think we’re seeing a trend in the UK… decreases in breakfast consumption over time.

“That is worrying because that means young people are going to school without having anything to eat, which will affect their ability to learn and concentrate.

“It’s particularly low for 13 to 15-year-old girls – less than about 40% having breakfast every day on school days – and that’s definitely an area of concern.

“Breakfast consumption sets you up for the day and is associated with a range of positive health outcomes and educational outcomes.

“More generally, I think it speaks to kind of healthier eating pattern, which of course then links to overweight and obesity as well.”

Dr Inchley also pointed to stark differences in the report between more affluent and less affluent families.

She said: “Almost twice as many young people from high socio-economic groups are eating vegetables, for example, compared with lower socio-economic groups. That is a massive difference.

“I think poverty must be a massive driver behind that.

“Also, young people growing up in poorer areas may be less likely to be able to access fresh fruit and vegetables, it can be more costly for younger people to buy them, and there’s maybe sort of cultural barriers around preparing fresh meals every day and so on.”

She said it was positive that, over time, children seem to be eating more fruit and vegetables and there has been a drop in sugary drinks consumption.

Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said: “Regular physical activity, healthy eating habits and maintaining a healthy weight are essential elements of a healthy lifestyle.

“The report’s findings signal a need for targeted interventions to enable adolescents to adopt healthier behaviours and avoid habits that affect not only their current health and well-being, but also their future trajectories as adults.”

Other data in the study found 27% of 11-year-old girls and 24% of 11-year-old boys in England think they are too fat, as do 31% of girls and 23% of boys in Wales.

By age 15, 43% of girls and 29% of boys in England think they are too fat, rising to 50% of girls and 30% of boys in Wales.

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