80 percent of kids don't get enough exercise

26 November 2019

Interview with 

Christof Schwiening, Cambridge University

KIDS DOING SPORT

KIDS DOING SPORT

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A new report from the World Health Organisation has found that up to 80% of children worldwide are not getting enough exercise, and in some countries that number can be as high as 97%. So what is the impact of this? Chris Smith spoke to Cambridge University physiologist Christof Schwiening. First, Chris asked, why is this important?

Christof - Well for a whole number of reasons, but first, let's make it clear - this is one hour of moderate to intense activity in total that is required for adolescents. So as you say, 80% not meeting that target.

Chris - Is that per week?

Christof - Per day. So one hour per day. I must say that adults are not meeting their target either. About 80% of those are not managing their two and a half hours of exercise a week. Children are not unique and of course without exercise you lose capacity to be able to do further exercise or even sustain life in the future. If you exercise less, then you become capable of doing less as time progresses.

Chris - Presumably it's not just about capacity though? It's presumably also to do with your ability to fend off ill health?

Christof - Oh yeah, absolutely. So with ill health comes lots of stresses. So there's cardiovascular stress associated with ill health and gradual dehydration, and exercise is very good at helping to support that. Or you've got things like muscle mass as well, and muscle mass of course, muscle stores carbohydrate, and that's important as well if you're ill. There's bone density, there's hormonal capacity as well, which gradually decreases if you don't exercise. And then the other critical aspect, sometimes overlooked, is the mental health aspect of getting out and doing a regular exercise bout, especially outside, and that's very important to mental health.

Chris - So this is really signalling alarm bells isn't it, that so few children are probably meeting those requirements? Why do you think that is?

Christof - I think there's a whole host of reasons why children are not exercising enough. Partly they're taking their lead from the adults around them and they're not doing enough exercise either, but it's so easy to not do exercise if you have all of these labour saving devices and now we're seeing lots of these electric scooters around as well. There's not even a need really to cycle a bike to school. It's so easy to sit in a nicely heated room with an electronic device chatting to your friends there rather than going out and actually meeting them.

Adam - So what defines active? What is the threshold? Is it not like, because us scooting around our office on our wheelie chairs, that doesn't count. So what does?

Christof - This is the whole problem and this is why there's been a gradual shift from things like doing 10,000 steps a day to this one hour worth of activity and it's really scientifically a spectrum, in that you can do lots of very low level activity. Scooting around on the chair - if you are doing it absolutely all day and relatively actively, isn't that bad, but you can shorten the amount of time that you need to exercise for you, if make it gradually more intense. And this is actually a public communication problem, because it starts to get complicated if you start to draw out an equation of the intensity versus time relationships. So we have simple statistics, like one hour of moderate to intense activity a day. That's good.

Chris - One person I know tried to argue that they could count several glasses of wine towards their five a day because they are made from something that had fruit in it. We had to disabuse them of that notion.

Christof - It's one of the five a day.

Chris - What might be the long term consequences if we do carry on going this way, what's going to be the outcome?

Christof - The outcome really is a problem with early mortality and it is a problem of disease states, growing levels of type two diabetes. Growing levels of inactivity lead to a whole range of mobility problems as well. So it's not looking good.

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