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Aussie kids among world’s least active

Boy on bicycle
Credit: iStock.com/StockPlanets

We think of our Aussie kids growing up playing beach cricket or kicking a ball in the park after school, but according to the Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Young People, we’re wrong.  

The report provides a national snapshot of the levels of physical activity in Australian children every two years and gives our young people a failing grade of D minus for overall physical activity. 

Active Healthy Kids Australia (AHKA) is a collaboration of physical activity researchers from across Australia who share a common interest in increasing the physical activity levels of all young Australians. 

They use the Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Young People to assign grades to physical activity indicators and provide a national snapshot of the current levels of physical activity in Australian children and young people.

To date, AHKA has released two full Report Cards: an inaugural Full Report Card in 2014 and another in 2016.  The report assesses 12 physical activity indicators (physical activity behaviours, traits, and the settings, sources of influence, strategies and investments, which have the potential to impact these behaviours and traits). In 2016, as in 2014, Australia was assigned a failing grade (D−) for Overall Physical Activity Levels.

Kids that are active reap a whole range of benefits from improved mood, self-esteem, body image, academic performance and social confidence to the physical benefits of better fitness, bone density, reduced body fat and lower risk of disease.
Dr Hayley Christian

The report found that the majority of Australian children and young people aged 5–17 years are not meeting the daily Australian physical activity guidelines, however younger children aged 2–4 years are doing reasonably well. 

“National data indicate that 72% of children aged 2–4 years (as reported by their parents) are meeting the Australian physical activity guidelines by accumulating at least 180 minutes of physical activity each day,” the report states.

“On average, parents report that Australian children aged 2–4 years meet the Australian physical activity guidelines on 6 days of every week.”

However, Dr Hayley Christian from The University of Western Australia says physical activity should be measured objectively.

Dr Christian says the early years are a critical period in a child’s health and development, yet most preschool children fail to meet physical activity guidelines, when measured objectively.

Along with colleagues she is conducting the PLAY Spaces & Environments for Children’s Physical Activity (PLAYCE) study which empirically investigates the influence of the long day care, home and neighborhood environment on preschoolers’ physical activity.

The PLAYCE study is an observational study (April 2015 to April 2018) of 2400 children aged 2–5 years attending long day care in metropolitan Perth. Accelerometers have been used to objectively measure physical activity over seven days while at day care and at home and other places. Some children have also worn GPS units and radio frequency identification bands to measure the places and environments where children are most or least active.

The study has been prompted by the fact that a large proportion of young children don’t get enough physical activity for their overall health and development and about 20% of children aged 2-4 are overweight or obese.

Dr Christian says there is a need for high quality evidence concerning the physical activity behavior of preschoolers and the role of the environment as a barrier or facilitator for that activity.

Dr Christian says it’s really important to get early health behaviours right. 

“It’s important that we start children off on the right trajectory because active children tend to be active later. It sets them up in the right way for their health and development,” she says.

“Kids that are active reap a whole range of benefits from improved mood, self-esteem, body image, academic performance and social confidence to the physical benefits of better fitness, bone density, reduced body fat and lower risk of disease.

“There are also environmental benefits to physical activity. If they ride their bikes with their parents instead of taking the car it’s great for everyone’s health and great for the environment.”

Avoid more than an hour a day of sedentary screen time

Dr Christian says the most critical thing with young children is simple – just let them move and play and avoiding more than an hour a day of sedentary screen time (2-5 year olds). The Australian National Physical Activity Guidelines recommend no sedentary screen time for children under two.

“For small children all these great benefits of physical activity come just from moving and that’s what children do when they’re playing. When we think about physical activity in young children it’s any kind of play, fast or slow. It just isn’t sitting still.”

Dr Christian says one of the best facilitators of play and activity for children is a pet.

“There are a whole lot of benefits from children having pets,” she says.

“Our research has shown that children that have a family dog do about two hours more physical activity per week. Pet play is important. A dog in the household really provides opportunities for children to actively play.” 

Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Young People

The results of the 2016 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Young People contributed to the second ‘Global Matrix’ of grades, benchmarking Australia against 37 countries. The report determined that Australian children are among the least active in the world.

Our D minus puts us on par with England, Spain, Thailand, Canada, Korea, Wales and the United States, but well behind frontrunners Slovenia (A-) and national rivals New Zealand (B-). 

More promising results include a B for organised sport and physical activity participation (up from B- in 2014) and A- for Community and the Built Environment (also A- in 2014). 

Key findings contributing to the A- include State-based data indicating that 86% of parents report having a playground that they/their children can access near their home.

Less impressive were movement skills which rated a D (Incomplete in 2014 due to a lack of nationally representative data). Movement skills are the building blocks for children being able to move and participate in physical activity competently and confidently. 

Australia also received a D in Government Strategies and Investments (down from C+ in 2014). 

The report states that 37 countries have established a national physical activity plan and another 69 include physical activity in their plans for preventing non communicable diseases.

“Of the 37 countries with established national physical activity plans, 14 of those countries are a part of the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance. Australia is yet to make the same commitment, which means without an overarching plan/strategy it is hard to develop, coordinate and sustain the multi-sectoral links required to see real improvement in the overall physical activity levels of Australian children and young people,” the report says.

Australia also continued to score a D- for sedentary behaviours, showing no improvement since 2014.

National data indicated that only 29% of Australian children and young people aged 5–17 years and 14% of Australian young people aged 12–17 years were meeting the sedentary behaviour screen time guidelines (≤2 hours every day).

National data from parents indicated that only 26% of Australian children aged 2–4 years were meeting the sedentary behaviour screen time guidelines (≤1 hour every day).

Active Healthy Kids Australia. Summary of the grades assigned to each indicator and the primary metric used to assign each grade.

Indicator

2014 2016
Overall PA Levels D– D–
Organised Sport and PA Participation B– B
PA Participation in Schools Incomplete Incomplete
Active Transport C C–
Active Play Incomplete Incomplete
Sedentary Behaviours D– D–
Family and Peers C C+
School B– B–
Community and the Built Environment A– A–
Strategies and Investments C+ D
Physical Fitness Incomplete C–
Movement Skills Incomplete D

 

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