Guidelines for children’s activity levels need to be presented more sensitively and positively

Georgina BentleyBy Georgina Bentley
PhD Student
Centre for Academic Primary Care

For many parents with young children (myself included), it may seem as if they never sit still, but surprisingly, research indicates that preschool children are not achieving the Government targets* for physical activity and are spending too much time in sedentary behaviours, such as watching TV.

As part of my PhD research on preschoolers’ physical activity and sedentary behaviour, I wanted to understand mothers’ reactions to these guidelines. Mothers are considered the gatekeepers of young children’s activity behaviours and so understanding how they perceive these guidelines seemed an obvious first step in determining how preschool children can be helped to meet the targets.

After interviewing mothers, the findings reveals that mothers don’t feel that the guidelines are relevant to their children, and some indicated that they wouldn’t take any notice of them. Their explanation for this is because they feel that their preschooler easily meets or even exceeds the government targets for physical activity and they are happy with their child’s screen-viewing time.

An important issue that arose from the study was that mothers found it difficult to define and quantify physical activity in preschool children, meaning that their estimations of their child’s activity levels may not be accurate. This poses as a major barrier to behaviour change – for mothers to instigate an increase in physical activity and reduction in sedentary behaviour, they first need to recognise that there is a need to do so.

As any parent can confirm, physical activity in preschool children occurs in short spontaneous bouts, making it very difficult to estimate. In addition, the guideline’s definition of what is considered physical activity for preschool children is vague and contradictory, posing even further confusion. For example, they suggest that physical activity is any activity that involves whole body movement and can be of any intensity, but they also suggest that activities such as dressing up are not considered a source of physical activity. With this in mind, it is essential to provide more comprehensible and usable terminology within current guidelines. Not only will this help mothers measure their child’s physical activity but will also raise some awareness of the need for children to be more active.

It’s important to bear in mind that even if mothers develop a better understanding of their preschooler’s activity levels, this study indicates that providing guideline targets alone may not be effective for behaviour change. Many mothers felt that were doing as much as they could do for their child in terms of proving opportunities for physical activity. In addition, all mothers in this study relied on screen-viewing time as an opportunity for them to catch up on household tasks such as cooking or cleaning or just to take a break from the demands of their child. Being informed that they need to do more was thought the cause feelings of pressure and guilt.

Guideline targets need to be presented sensitively and positively. This could be achieved by providing practical solutions and ideas to help mothers encourage physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour that work in the real world, and have positive outcomes for both the parent and child. This approach would greatly improve chances of successfully implementing the government guidelines within the UK population and having an impact preschoolers physical activity levels.

* The UK government guidelines recommend that children under 5 years who can walk unaided should be physically active for at least three hours every day. This activity, which mainly consists of active play, can be of any intensity and spread throughout the day.


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