A new study finds half of UK’s seven-year-olds are not getting the recommended minimum level of 60 minutes vigorous daily exercise, in stark contrast to the “legacy” vision inspired by the London 2012 Olympic Games.

The findings, from a representative sample of 6,500 primary schoolchildren aged from seven to eight taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study, also show girls rather than boys, children of Indian descent and those living in Northern Ireland are the least active.

The study, led by researchers at University College London (UCL), has just been published online in BMJ Open.

Senior author Carol Dezateux, professor of paediatric epidemiology at the UCL Institute of Child Health, says they see no biological reasons as to why boys should be more active than girls:

“At this age, there aren’t significant differences in how children are put together physically, so we have to look at opportunity and social expectation.”

Prof. Dezateux adds:

What we need to see is a positive attitude to offering choice, diversity of opportunity, a wide range of activities, and inclusiveness for all children – especially girls.”

In 2011, the UK’s Chief Medical Officers issued revised guidelines for physical activity over the life course. These recommend that children should have a minimum of 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity a day and should not be sitting for long periods, although no levels were set for this.

For the new study, the team examined duration and intensity of kids’ daily physical activity over a week between May 2008 and August 2009.

The data was captured on accelerometers that the children wore on an elasticated belt that they only removed when bathing or sleeping.

The results show that the overall average amount of exercise across the whole sample was 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per day. The accelerometer readings showed that the average number of steps per child per day was 10,299.

But the readings also revealed that half the children were sedentary for at least six hours or more each day, and half of them did not reach the minimum recommended level for daily vigorous physical activity.

Of the boys, 63% achieved the minimum recommended physical activity level – compared with just 38% of girls.

Compared with boys, girls were less active on several counts. The girls:

  • Were less physically active overall
  • Spent less time doing moderate to vigorous exercise, and
  • Attained fewer total steps per day.

The researchers also found regional and ethnic disparities.

Northern Ireland had the least active children, with only 43% reaching the recommended daily levels for moderate to vigorous physical activity. Scotland had the most active children, with 52.5% reaching the recommended 60 minutes a day, just half a percentage point more children than in England (52%).

But within England there were stark regional contrasts: while 58% of children in the north-west met the guidelines, only 46% did so in England’s Midlands.

Children of Indian ethnic descent were the least physically active: they spent the least time doing moderate to vigorous exercise and attained the lowest daily step count. Only 33% of children of Bangladeshi origin met the recommended levels.

Prof Dezateux describes the contrast between girls’ and boys’ exercise levels as “striking.” She suggests more should be done to encourage girls to exercise and take part in ballgames, playground activity and dancing.

What has happened to the Olympic legacy promise of the London 2012 Games? Was that not intended to inspire a new generation to participate in sport? The authors refer to this in their study report, where they also conclude:

“The results of our study provide a useful baseline and strongly suggest that contemporary UK children are insufficiently active, implying that effort is needed to boost [physical activity] among young people to the level appropriate for good health.”

The changes required will have to reach the whole population, they say. For example, making it easier for children to walk to school will go a long way to increasing their daily physical activity levels and reduce time spent sitting.

A study published earlier this year suggests exercise may also help children cope with stress.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD