Physical activity & children – we need innovative approaches

A group of children running

Lucy EcclesLucy Eccles is former International Communications Assistant at World Cancer Research Fund International. She has a BSc in Biomedical Science from the University of Southampton and was Clinical Trial Data Manager at the Institute of Cancer Research, working on prostate, penile and testicular cancers.

Physical inactivity is now the fourth leading cause of death globally. This is a worrying statistic in itself, but especially when you discover that figures also show that whereas a quarter of adults are not active enough, the figure for adolescents (aged 11-17 years) is staggeringly high at 81%.

As Whitney Houston famously sang, “children are our future.” So how do we ensure that young people grow up to live long and healthy lives? What kind of action is being taken around the world to tackle this issue, and is there anything more that could be done?

But first, I want to highlight two specific examples of the link between physical activity and health. Our analysis of worldwide research shows that there is a strong link between physical activity and a reduced risk of post menopausal breastbowel (colorectal) and womb (endometrial) cancers. Being physically active also helps to reduce the likelihood of becoming overweight or obese – which is incredibly important as our review of global research also shows strong evidence that being overweight or obese is linked to an increased risk of 10 cancers.

Getting the world moving is a health priority

So it’s clear that getting the world’s population moving should be a public health priority, but implementing interventions to do so is not easy. Not only are obesity rates continuing to climb, but the figures show that no country has significantly decreased obesity rates in the past 33 years.

Moreover, the number of obese people in the world more than doubled between 1980 and 2014, and 42 million children under the age of 5 were recorded as being overweight or obese in 2013. Clearly, being overweight or obese can be the consequence of diet as well as physical activity levels, but if we are to improve on the latter, we will need to focus on innovative ways to engage the younger generation.

Social media to encourage physical activity

For example, there is a new movement happening online that could be a powerful tool in tackling the issue. Apps that are popular with children and teenagers, such as Instagram and Tumblr, are increasingly being used to encourage users to share videos and images depicting their fitness goals and what inspires them to get fit.

Their popularity is evident from the fact that #fitspiration has been tagged over 5 million times on Instagram, and the number of tags for #fitnessaddict is even higher at 8.8 million tags. Alongside individuals sharing this content, online communities have formed on Instagram and Tumblr, where people encourage each other to reach their fitness goals.

For example, the ‘Blogilates’ community has around 2 million subscribers worldwide, who come together to share their workout ideas and track their fitness progress. Clearly, these apps are making exercise a fashionable activity, but not everyone will want to follow social media channels focussed specifically on fitness.

Innovation in school PE lessons needed

Many interventions to encourage children to get more physically active have occurred in schools. This includes ‘whole-of-school approaches’ (which encompass physical education; physical activity before, during and after school; staff participation; and family and community engagement), increasing PE (physical education) time and intensity, and governments providing recommendations on the amount of PE schools should provide.

For example, the French government recommends that both primary and secondary schools offer a minimum of 108 hours a year, the government in Scotland recommends 76 hours annually, but the figure for Ireland drops to a mere 37 hours for primary schools and 45 for secondary.

These recommendations aim to increase PE hours in schools but they are not mandatory, and no matter how much PE is scheduled there will always be children who don’t feel inspired enough to want to participate. I was one of these children; because I was terrible at running and catching, weekly PE lessons were just two hours of dread.

It wasn’t until I discovered that I had strong gymnastic abilities that I found something I enjoyed: all-star cheerleading. This was a sport I was good at, so for the first time in my life not only was I willing to engage in physical activity, I happily spent many hours devoted to it and this eventually led to me competing nationally and internationally in the sport.

Perhaps if more schools could branch out to include a wider range of activities in PE lessons – such as cheerleading, martial arts or even Zumba – then more children might have a chance of finding an exercise they enjoy and, in doing so, develop the positive lifelong habits they will need to lead healthy lives in adulthood.

For this idea to be successful, however, schools may require more funding as some have limited PE facilities that cannot accommodate a wide range of sports. For example, in last month’s review of New York City schools, 435 schools were found to have no on-site PE facilities and 506 did not have a full-time certified PE teacher.

School-based interventions to encourage physical activity, however, don’t necessarily need to take place in PE lessons. The MOVE project – a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council – attempted to utilise geography lessons to achieve this goal in the UK.

Students used mapping software to evaluate areas of their local community to assess where physical activity could take place and how they could take advantage of this. For example, they located green spaces nearby where they could play games and identified routes to enable them to walk to school easily.

Indeed, research funded by World Cancer Research Fund UK shows that journeys to school are a significant contributor to the total amount of physical activity children take part in, so geography projects that encourage children to walk on their journey could make a big impact.

Competition & incentives to encourage physical activity

Initiatives developed by employers may also be able to help. An increasingly popular way to boost the physical activity levels of employees worldwide has seen companies providing wearable pedometers (eg. Fitbit bracelets) and creating online leader boards linked to prize incentives for those who take the most steps.

case study on BP employees in the USA found that using pedometers, with the incentive of access to a premium health plan, significantly improved physical activity among employees. Similar interventions could be used in schools, using cheaper, basic pedometers – and more child-focused prizes – to encourage pupils to embed physical activity as a regular habit in their lives. Indeed, ‘pedometer challenge’ schemes for schools are already being offered in some countries such as the USA, and England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

There is also further action being taken at a macro level. For example, WHO Europe is the first region in the world working on developing a physical activity strategy. It will be interesting to see what is included in the strategy when it is published in September.

Finally, to reduce the global child obesity epidemic we need, in the words of Dr Margaret Chan – the World Health Organization’s Director General – to “adopt novel approaches.” I hope these novel approaches include making the most of the innovations already catching the interest of the younger generation, such as the latest technology, emerging popular sports and social media.

Creativity and innovation can go a long way in helping to engage children in physical activity today, and to making ‘exercise’ a lifestyle habit that they are likely to retain in adulthood.