28 November 2023
This blog was originally published by the Youth Sport Trust on 28 November 2023.
The Active-6 project led by researchers at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Exercise, Nutrition, and Health Sciences and Bristol Medical School and funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), has been exploring how Year 6’s physical activity has changed since the pandemic. Here Dr Ruth Salway provides an overview of the findings from a paper published today, and what they mean for inequalities in children’s physical activity.
After COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, we found six activity profiles of children, from most to least active:
The image on the right shows how the percentage of children in each of the activity profiles has changed since the pandemic.
In the green profiles, the majority of children meet the UK physical activity guidelines, in the yellow profiles it is about half and half, and in the red profiles the majority of children do not meet the guidelines.
Children’s physical activity has changed post-COVID-19, in terms of who is being active and how (see data on the new normal and data on club participation). While activity levels have returned, on average, to pre-pandemic levels, our study shows a more polarised picture, where more children now tend to be either very active or very sedentary. This is important as it means that more children may be at risk of poorer health and wellbeing because of a sedentary lifestyle.
Above all, this study gives us vital information on the negative impact the pandemic has had on the physical activity of girls and children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and the ways their activity behaviours have changed, with existing gaps widening post-pandemic. We need to work hard to tackle these inequalities and support their participation in physical activity.
For more information about research methods, peer-reviewed scientific publications, and other project information, please visit our project website.
The Active-6 project investigated whether the COVID-19 lockdowns had a lasting impact on children’s activity. To do this, we compared accelerometer-measured activity levels of Year 6 children in primary schools in the greater Bristol area before the pandemic in 2017/18 and after in 2022.
The UK Chief Medical Officer recommends that children should do activity that raises the heart rate, makes the breath faster, and body feel warmer for an average of at least an hour per day. This is called moderate to vigorous physical activity.
Active-6 research has shown that, on average, children’s activity had returned to pre-pandemic levels by 2022, although they spent more time being sedentary than before. And worryingly, still only 41% of children met these guidelines.
But just looking at averages can hide a more complicated picture. We wanted to find typical patterns of physical activity and sedentary time that tend to occur together. These ‘activity profiles’ can be used to identify common groups of children, especially those least likely to be active and so at risk of poorer health and wellbeing. We looked at how these profiles had changed post-lockdown, and whether there were gender or socioeconomic differences.