Child playing football

8 February 2017

A new, in depth study of children and teenagers struggling with weight issues found their physical activity levels were low, while their screen time was high.

Physical “huff and puff” activity was much lower than national averages, and the vast majority of children and teenagers didn’t meet physical activity guidelines. A third spent more than three hours a day outside of school hours watching TV or other screens.

The 239 children in the study were assessed when they enrolled in a community-based 12-month intervention programme called Whānau Pakari. Aged 4-16, the participants had BMIs in the clinically overweight or obese range, and many had weight-related health problems. Māori and Pakeha each made up 45 percent of the group, with the remaining 10 percent from other ethnicities.

Researchers found:

  • Moderate to vigorous-intensity exercise was low, with a daily average of 39 minutes compared to 105 minutes in a national survey
  • Only a minority (19 per cent) met national physical activity guidelines of at least one hour of moderate to vigorous aerobic physical activity per day
  • Fitness was lower than national averages
  • Average screen time was more than 2½ hours per day outside of school hours
  • More than a third (34 per cent) had over three hours of screen time outside of school hours

The study was a collaboration between the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland, Taranaki District Health Board, and Sport Taranaki, with funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

“This study highlighted that physical activity in obese children is low,” says Dr Yvonne Anderson, Liggins Institute researcher, Taranaki paediatrician and co-author of the study.

“This, combined with large screen times, is of concern. We already knew from a past study that almost half of the children have a television or some form of device in their bedrooms, and these children reported having more difficulty getting to sleep than those without devices in the bedroom.”

Researchers also found that as children got older, physical activity decreased.

“The recommended screen time is less than two hours per day outside of school hours, and no screen time for children under the age of two. Recommended physical activity is one hour of moderate to vigorous-intensity ‘huff and puff’ activity per day. Many obese children are not meeting these guidelines,” Dr Anderson says.

Obesity is everyone’s problem, and we’re all part of the solution, she says.

“We all need to work together to ensure children have access to physical activities and environments to undertake these activities in their everyday lives. We need to be role models for our children. As our lives get increasingly filled with technology, we need to unplug and get active with our children.”  

Nationally, an estimated 85,000 children aged 2-14 years are obese, and about 4,500 in Taranaki, according to the New Zealand Health Survey.

Whānau Pakari means “Healthy self-assured whānau who are fully active”. The programme, which is still running, involves regular home visits and support from a multi-disciplinary team of health professionals to help whānau make healthy lifestyle changes.

The study was published in Scientific Reports.

News article courtesy of the Liggins Institute, University of Auckland