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 transport and household chores, as well as unstructured lifestyle activities such as play in young children.

Why is physical activity important?

For children aged 2-4 years, being physically active can have many benefits, not just to their physical health. These include:

  • Improved strength and muscular endurance, which in turns aids co-ordination
  • Development of “Fundamental Movement Skills”, such as balancing, locomotor skills and ball control
  • Weight management
  • Improved emotional well-being
  • Improved academic performance
  • Improved social skills, self-esteem and confidence
  • Increased likelihood of continuing physical activity as they get older  
  • Reduced risk of health problems in later life (e.g. diabetes and cardiovascular diseases)

Physical activity recommendations for the under 5's

In 2011, the Chief Medical Officers from the four home countries produced guidelines on the amount of physical activity recommended for health benefits2. For the first time in the UK, this report included guidance for children under 5 years:

Children (under 5 years) who are able to walk unaided should be physically active for at least 3 hours (180 minutes) spread throughout the day. This equates to about 25% of a toddlers waking time each day.

These 180 minutes can be activity of any intensity and can align with the types of physical activity most naturally occurring during the early years, including intermittent and sporadic patterns. 

Active families

When working with parents of pre-school 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.  Here are some key points (for further information see reference 2):

  • Children aged 5-18 years should engage in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for at least 60 minutes daily. This is activity where they feel warm and may get out of breath, such as running or active games like “tig”. 
  • Adults over 19 years should engage in at least 150 minutes moderate intensity physical activity over the week. One example of how this could be achieved is by walking briskly for 30 minutes on 5 days of the 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). Activity should last at least 10 minutes at a time, as in the example below:

e.g. a 7-year old child might accumulate their daily activity by walking to school for 10 minutes, playing out at lunchtime for 20 minutes, walking home for 10 minutes and running around in the park for 20 minutes.

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). Light activities include day-to-day activities (e.g. getting dressed, moving around) and do not affect a child’s breathing rate.

Energetic activities: involve rapid movement of the trunk and would leave a child out of breath (e.g. running, jumping, skipping)

           Light Physical Activity                   Energetic Physical Activity
  • Standing up
  • Moving around
  • Walking
  • Getting dressed
  • Helping with cleaning
  • Playing board games
  • Running
  • Climbing
  • Dancing
  • Riding a bike
  • Swimming
  • Skipping

Underweight children

Pre-school children who are underweight should still partake in regular physical activity (unless there is a specific reason or a medical professional has advised physical activity to be restricted) in order to achieve the health benefits listed in this section3. Findings from our research indicated that practitioners were less likely to signpost families to local leisure services if their child was underweight (compared with children who were overweight). This could be because physical activity is often associated with weight loss. Even if children are underweight, it is important to know that being physically active can still help them improve muscle strength; improve blood sugar control, cardiovascular functioning, co-ordination and learning. 

What is sedentary behaviour?

Sedentary behaviour refers to behaviours that typically occur while seated or lying down (excluding sleeping) that require low levels of energy expenditure2. Evidence suggests the under 5’s spend a large proportion of their time being sedentary3

Example Sedentary Behaviours:

- Sitting reading a book
- Watching television
- Spending time being restrained (e.g. push 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 2011 Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines2 therefore recommend all ages (children and adults) should 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 sedentary time.

Sometimes sedentary behaviour can be positive -  Sometimes sedentary behaviours during the day can be beneficial for a child’s leaning e.g. reading a book, playing educational games, playing in sandpit/messy play. This type of activity does not need to be limited but should be combined with 3 hours of physical activity per day.