Physical activity

What is physical activity and sedentary behaviour?

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What is physical activity?

Physical activity is defined as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. This includes exercise, sports, active travel, and household chores, as well as unstructured lifestyle activities such as play in young children.

Why is physical activity important?

For children under 5 years old, being physically active can have many benefits, not just to their physical health. These include:

  • Improved weight management
  • Improved sleep
  • Improved bone/skeletal health
  • Improved strength and muscular fitness, which in turn aids movement and co-ordination
  • Improved development of foundational movement skills, such as balancing, locomotor and ball skills
  • Improved cognitive development, aiding brain development and learning
  • Improved emotional well-being
  • Improved social skills, self-esteem and confidence
  • Increased likelihood of continuing physical activity as children get older
  • Reduced risk of health problems in later life (e.g., diabetes and cardiovascular diseases)

Physical activity guidelines for the under 5’s

In 2019, the Chief Medical Officers from the four home countries produced guidelines on the amount of physical activity recommended for health benefits. The guidelines consider three distinct developmental stages and age groups within the under 5s: infants (less than 1 year); toddlers (1-2 years); and preschoolers (3-4 years).

Click on the tabs below to read about the guidelines for each age group.

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Infants (less than 1 year)

  • Infants should be physically active several times every day in a variety of ways, including interactive floor-based activity, e.g., crawling.
  • For infants not yet mobile, this includes at least 30 minutes of tummy time spread throughout the day while awake (and other movements such as reaching and grasping, pushing and pulling themselves independently, or rolling over); more is better.

Toddlers (1-2 years)

  • Toddlers should spend at least 180 minutes (3 hours) per day in a variety of physical activities at any intensity, including active and outdoor play, spread throughout the day; more is better.

Preschoolers (3-4 years)

  • Pre-schoolers should spend at least 180 minutes (3 hours) per day in a variety of physical activities spread throughout the day, including active and outdoor play; more is better.
  • The 180 minutes should include at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (energetic activities such as riding a bike, dancing, or active games that involve running or jumping).

Active families

When working with parents/carers of young children, the whole family should be encouraged to lead an active lifestyle. Therefore, it is important to understand the physical activity guidelines for different age groups.

Click on the tabs below to see some key points from the Chief Medical Officers’ 2019 guidelines:

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Children aged 5-18 years

  • Children aged 5-18 years should engage in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for an average of at least 60 minutes per day across the week. This includes all forms of activity such as in PE, sports, play, active travel, and after-school activities. Activities should make children breathe faster and feel warmer, such as when running, dancing or active games like “tig”. Children and young people should also be encouraged to engage in activities that develop their movement skills, muscular fitness, and bone strength.

Adults (aged 19+ years)

  • Adults (19 years and over) should engage in at least 150 minutes moderate intensity physical activity over the week (such as brisk walking or cycling); or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity (such as running); or even shorter durations of very vigorous intensity activity (such as sprinting or stair climbing); or a combination of moderate, vigorous and very vigorous activity. Adults should also do muscle strengthening activities (such as gardening, heavy lifting, gym) at least twice a week, while older adults should also engage in balance activities (such as Tai Chi or dance) on at least two days a week.

The key for both adults and children is to try to be active daily, and to find activities they enjoy (including activities they can do together as a family). Any activity is better than none, and more is better still. It’s never too late to start!

Family members can accumulate their daily activity throughout the day, e.g. a 7-year old child might accumulate their daily activity by a brisk walk to school for 10 minutes, playing out at lunchtime for 20 minutes, a brisk walk home for 10 minutes and running around in the park for 20 minutes after school.

Types of Physical Activity

Children under five can be physically active throughout the day at a range of different intensities. Their physical activity should be spread throughout the day in short bursts and mixed with periods of rest. This includes light and energetic activities.

Light activities: include minimal and slow movement of the trunk (chest and abdomen) from one place to another, and do not affect a child’s breathing rate. In infants, light activities include reaching or grasping for objects, as well as pulling, pushing and playing with people, objects and toys. In toddlers and preschool children, light activities include standing up, moving around slowly, and playing in water or playing board games.

Energetic activities: involve rapid movement of the trunk from one place to another, and would make children breathe harder and feel warmer. This includes activities such as riding a bike, dancing or jumping on a trampoline.

Light Physical Activity
Infants
  • Reaching and grasping
  • Pulling and pushing
  • Rolling and playing
Toddlers and preschoolers
  • Standing up
  • Moving around slowly
  • Walking at a slow pace
  • Getting dressed
  • Playing in water
  • Playing board games
Energetic Physical Activity
  • Running
  • Climbing
  • Dancing
  • Riding a bike
  • Swimming
  • Skipping

Children living with underweight

Findings from a research study done in Blackburn, UK, showed practitioners were less likely to signpost families to local leisure services if their child was living with underweight (compared with children living with overweight). This could be because physical activity is often associated with weight loss.

Unless a child has been advised to restrict their physical activity by a medical professional, children living with underweight should still take part in regular physical activity. Being active can help with sleep, development of foundational movement skills and social/psychological factors such as self-esteem.

What is sedentary behaviour?

Sedentary behaviour refers to behaviours that typically occur while seated, reclined or lying down (excluding sleeping) that require low levels of energy expenditure. Evidence suggests the under 5’s spend a large proportion of their time being sedentary.

Example sedentary behaviours:
  • Sitting reading a book
  • Watching television
  • Spending time being restrained (e.g., push chair, high chair)
  • Playing on phone/tablet
  • Travelling by car/bus/train

Why is sedentary behaviour important?

Sedentary behaviour is recognised as an independent risk factor for ill-health (which means regardless of someone’s physical activity levels, high levels of sedentary behaviour could increase their health risk). The World Health Organisation 2019 guidelines therefore recommend all ages (children and adults) minimise the amount of time spent being sedentary.

Sedentary behaviour - considerations for young children

Being sedentary goes against a young child’s natural tendencies to be active. Sedentary behaviour patterns tend to be stable over time. For example, toddlers who watch a lot of television are more likely to continue to watch a lot of television throughout their childhood. Therefore, it is important to establish healthy patterns during the early years.

As the risks to health from being sedentary are independent of physical activity, it is important to support families in helping their child become more active and reduce time spent restrained or in sedentary screen time.

The quality of sedentary behaviour

Sometimes sedentary behaviours can be positive. Quality of sedentary time matters and interactive non-screen-based activities, such as reading, storytelling, singing and puzzles are important for a child’s learning, as well as recreation and relaxation. These types of sedentary pursuits do not need to be limited but should be combined with 3 hours of physical activity per day.

World Health Organization guidelines on sedentary behaviour for under 5s

Click on the tabs below to read what the World Health Organisation recommends in relation to babies and children’s sedentary behaviour.

Faq Items

Infants (less than 1 year)

  • Not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time (e.g., prams/ strollers, high chairs, or strapped on a parent/caregiver’s back).
  • Screen time is not recommended.
  • When sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a parent/caregiver is encouraged.

Toddlers (1-2 years)

  • Not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time (e.g. prams/ strollers, high chairs, or strapped on a parent/caregiver’s back) or sit for extended periods of time.
  • For 1-year-olds, sedentary screen time (such as watching TV or videos, playing computer games) is not recommended.
  • For those aged 2 years, sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour a day; less is better.
  • When sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a parent/caregiver is encouraged.

Pre-schoolers (3-4 years)

  • Not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time (e.g. prams/ strollers or car seat) or sit for extended periods of time.
  • Sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour a day; less is better.
  • When sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a parent/caregiver is encouraged.