Australia is famous for its active outdoor lifestyle. So it might come as a surprise to find out the vast majority of children are not spending enough time being active.
Despite having top-notch parklands, facilities, sporting fields and cycle-ways, not even one in five Australian kids aged between five and 17 get anywhere near the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day.
There are so many reasons why kids need to be physically active. It improves fitness, helps with weight maintenance, strengthens muscles and bones and reduces their risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes later in life.
Regular physical activity has also been found to help children be more confident, have better concentration, and to be better able to cope with stress and regulate their emotions.
We often blame parents, schools, government policy and excess screen time for kids’ sedentary lifestyles. The latest report card on physical activity suggests each of these play a role.
But Dr Natasha Schranz says our tendency to over-schedule children’s time is part of the problem.
Dr Schranz, the report card’s lead investigator, understands parents are keen to give their children as many opportunities as possible — dance classes, piano lessons or chess club. But this often means less free time to just play outside.
As a parent of two young girls, Dr Schranz appreciates the tension.
“But I’m mindful of the time I do schedule for them versus the time where we just walk the dog or head to the playground. The things that should just happen in everyday life.”
She points out that even when children take part in organised sports — such as cricket, soccer, hockey or netball — a lot of that time isn’t actually spent being active. They spend a lot of time taking instruction or waiting their turn.
Also the activities they do in school and club sports, are not always enough to ensure they develop the motor skills and movement patterns that are the building blocks of other movements. Without these patterns – running, jumping, leaping, galloping, skipping, catching, throwing and kicking – it makes it hard to build confidence with a whole range of physical activities.
“This is why we need to give kids time for unstructured rough and tumble play without rules, boundaries and scheduling by adults,” she says.
“It needs to be about them wanting to explore and try new things, rather than physical activity being something you have to schedule in.”
Time isn’t on our sides 60 minutes every day can be accumulated throughout day
some moderate – fast walking, riding, scootering
some vigorous – running, playing or ball sports like soccer
limit screen use to 2 hours per day
3 times a week do muscle and bone strengthening exercise (climbing, jumping, martial arts).
But trying to work this free play into family life is not always that simple – as many busy parents would argue.
Magdalena Wahhab is a working mum with a six-year-old daughter. She’s an avid gym-goer and organises as much for her daughter as she can, on top of school commitments.
But there are only so many hours in a day. “Parents work such long hours; it’s hard to accommodate all the kids’ needs on top of cooking dinner and helping with homework,” she explains. “My daughter does a few activities during the week, then we squeeze in as much as possible on weekends. “But there just isn’t enough time for all the fun, enjoyable things like playing with friends during the week.”
Plus, when you finally get 10 minutes to yourself at night after dinner, homework, washing and preparing for the next day, “sometimes it’s easier to let them play on the iPad than jump on the bike”.
Dr Schranz agrees that life and parenthood is a constant juggle of priorities.
“So in my house, we prioritise the commute to and from school,” she says.
“Above everything else, we walk, ride or scoot there. It’s free and something we have to do five days a week, back and forth.”
She says even if you don’t live within a few kilometres from school, there are always options: park a few kilometres away and walk, or get off public transport a few stops earlier.
What about the bookworms?
While team sport may be a big part of many school kids’ lives. There’s also the reality that not all children enjoy team sports. Some kids are arty, others prefer to read, and some suffer body image issues.
Often times these children fall through the cracks.
That’s the case for Julie Boland’s 14-year-old daughter. “She was a great swimmer when she was younger, but now she’s really tall for her age and is suffering with weight issues. It has really knocker her confidence,” she explains. “She’d been trying out for school championships, but was being so badly bullied by kids because of her height. “If you aren’t the sports star at school you don’t exist, so sometimes she’d just sit in her room.”
Without support from the school, Julie is doing everything she can to keep her teenager moving at home to build confidence and fitness.
“She’s now doing personal training one to two times a week and I’m trying to encourage her to do classes with me in the morning,” she said.
“I do gardening jobs after work so I take her with me. She plays with the dogs or runs around with the babies to give the mums a break.
“But it has taken a long time for me to get her confidence up.”
At the end of the day, it takes a village to raise a child, Dr Schranz says. She and the other authors of the report say this ‘physical inactivity pandemic’ requires a coordinated response.
“It comes down to parents, teachers and schools to share the load in teaching kids these skills,” she said.
Cassie White is a Sydney-based personal trainer, yoga coach and health journalist.