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Reduced physical activity and increased sedentary behaviour: the damage on young people during the COVID-19 pandemic

02 April 2021
10 min read
Volume 2 · Issue 2


Healthy childhood development is fostered through movement behaviours, including sufficient physical activity. This article reviews some of the recently published global studies that have examined the impact of COVID-19 on children's physical activity and sedentary behaviours, the majority of which have indicated that children's physical activity behaviours have lessened significantly during these times, while their sedentary behaviours have risen significantly. The authors make some suggestions for ways to encourage and foster physical activity in both children and their families, for example by showing people different ways of staying active and offering other opportunities for physical activity, as well as ensuring the feeling of staying safe and being protected.

Healthy childhood development is fostered through sufficient physical activity, limiting sedentary behaviours, and adequate sleep; collectively known as movement behaviours (Moore et al, 2020). Stockwell et al (2021) define physical activity as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscle that results in energy expenditure, and can include exercising, walking, gardening and doing household chores. Sedentary behaviours can be defined as any waking behaviour with an energy expenditure of ≤1.5 metabolic equivalents while in a sitting or reclining posture, including watching TV, video gaming and computer use (Stockwell et al, 2021).

Recent statistics show that in the UK, 9.7% and 20.2% of children aged 4–5 years old and 10–11 years respectively were classed as obese or severely obese in 2018/19, based on data from the National Child Measurement Programme. Compared to 2009/10 data, this represents an overall increasing trend (NHS, 2019), and an escalating problem in the paediatric population. Obese children are at an increased risk of several physical and psychological comorbidities throughout their lifespan, including during childhood where there is an increase in cardiometabolic risk, and chronic illness and premature death later in life (Kumar and Kelly, 2017; Sharma et al, 2019). While the causes of childhood obesity can be multifaceted, one of the main elements that contribute to obesity is the long-term dysregulation of energy balance; an overconsumption of high-energy foods, meaning the child often has too high an energy intake, along with an energy expenditure that is too low, based on spending too much time partaking in sedentary behaviours and not enough physical activity. While the UK government has set a target to cut childhood obesity in half by 2030, worryingly, rates are showing an overall increasing trend.

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