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Sports for children and young people: who is active, who is not?

A majority of Swedish children is not sufficiently physically active and spend too much time in sedentary activities, according to the 2016 report to the Government from the Swedish Research Council for Sport Science (CIF).

To reach established activity guidelines for health, children should undertake at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity of moderate to high intensity. Physical activity can be accumulated during the course of day and could include a variety of activities such as cycling and walking for transport, active play in school- and playgrounds, during outdoor education and through organised sport in free-time.

The main result in this report is that children in Sweden, in general, achieve only low levels of physical activity and spend a lot of time in sedentary activities such as sitting in front of screens. The report, based on a nationally representative sample of children in grades 5, 8 and 11, and based on measurements with objective accelerometers, shows that only 44 percent of boys and 22 percent of girls reach the current recommendation.

Teenage girls are the least active

Boys in grade 5 (13 years of age) achieved the highest levels of physical activity, while girls in grade 11 (17-18 years of age) were least active. Only 14 percent of girls in grade 11 were sufficiently physically active. In addition, both boys and girls in grade 11 spent nearly 80 percent of their waking time in sedentary activities. The result of declining activity levels with age and lower physical activity among girls than among boys is in line with previous research.

The sport culture – a barrier for inactive children

A relative small group of children in the study, six percent, were very sedentary. They seldom or never participate in Physical Education, are mostly physically inactive during recess in school, seldom participate in organised sport and report a very sedentary lifestyle in free-time. Although six percent may sound like a small proportion of children, one should remember that on a national level this represents a fairly large number of individuals with higher risk for future ill-health compared to more physically active children.

To encourage increased physical activity among this group represents one of the most important, as well as one of the most difficult, challenge in public health. The least active children are normally the hardest group to reach. They tend to avoid both Physical Education in school and organised sports partly due to perceived barriers related to the culture of sport and exercise inherent in the sport movement and in the school setting. Efforts to promote physical activity in those settings may therefore not be effective in this group. To promote an active lifestyle among this group, interventions in the school setting and in the sport movement need to address perceived barriers such as “I’m not the sporty type” and offer new alternatives to the traditional approaches. Furthermore, interventions need to focus on other settings as well, such as transport, built environment, local community and other cultural settings.

Active in school – sedentary in spare time

Demands for more lecture-time in Physical Education is a hot political issue in Sweden. Yet, the report shows that children achieve a higher share of their physical activity during school-days compared to in free-time. Physical activity levels decline sharply during weekends for both girls and boys of all included ages. Girls in grade 11 were particularly sedentary in weekends. Boys in grade 5 and 8 were the only groups of children reaching the current activity guidelines, and only during weekdays. As a result, political action to promote physical activity in children might need to target a wider variety of settings.

Polarization

Another important result is that sport participation among children is subject to polarization, that is, differences between groups are increasing. Around 20 percent of Swedish children never participate in sport, while 20 percent are very involved on a regular basis. Children involved in sport are more physically active, spend less time sitting and in front of screens compared to children not involved in sport. Therefore, efforts that reduce differences between groups are needed and should be prioritized.