Parents don’t know how much exercise children really need, new study reveals
The study, led by Dr Joanne Trigwell, a Research Fellow in the School of Health and Wellbeing at Leeds Beckett University, involved focus groups with parents of children aged four to 16 years old living in a low socio-economic status city in North-West England whose ethnic backgrounds were Asian Bangladeshi, Black African, Black Somali, Chinese, White British and Yemeni. The study was part of a larger research project designed to improve the cultural relevance of family-based childhood obesity treatment for ethnic minority groups.
Parents were asked about topics including: their understanding of physical activity, awareness of guidelines, knowledge of the benefits associated with participating in physical activity and perceived influences on physical activity in childhood.
Guidelines recommend that children and young people engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day and vigorous intensity activities at least three days per week.
Whilst the parents recognised benefits to being physically active in childhood, they were confused about the intensity of activity necessary to gain the associated health outcomes and were generally unaware of the physical activity recommendations for children.
Dr Trigwell explained: “In all ethnic groups, parents considered the physical activity children did at school, during physical education (PE) classes, at break time and when walking to and from school, to fulfil the recommendation, therefore they did not always see a need to encourage their children to be active out of school hours.
“This belief is concerning given the low levels of physical activity achieved during school (PE) and school recess. Few children are meeting physical activity recommendations and there are significant variations by ethnic background. Moreover, physical activity levels decrease further as children reach adolescence.”
The researchers found that various cultural attitudes can act as barriers or facilitators to physical activity. Dr Trigwell said: “An example of culture as a facilitator was reported by Chinese parents who regularly take part in physical activity as a family due to a cultural requirement to be active.
“This positive influence of the Chinese culture was however coupled with cultural barriers. Chinese, Asian Bangladeshi and Yemeni parents considered children’s educational commitments, including homework, faith classes and language lessons relating to ethnic background, to limit the time they have to be active.
“Parental expectations of how children should behave also influenced their PA levels. Mothers from some ethnic groups cited traditional gender roles associated to ethnic backgrounds and religious values to impact on the physical activity levels of children. In particular, Asian Bangladeshi, Black Somali and Yemeni girls had less freedom to participate in activities outside the home and were limited in the type of activities they were able to undertake. As a result, Muslim girls were considered to experience greater difficulty in achieving the physical activity recommendation than boys.”
Across all ethnic backgrounds, a lack of motivation from children was recognised, often associated with a preference for sedentary activities. Other factors contributing to a lack of physical activity were attributed to parents’ work and responsibilities in the home meaning that they promote sedentary activities to keep children occupied; an absence of peers and local facilities; and a lack of transport and financial resources.
Dr Trigwell added: “Whilst the parents in our study were aware of their potential role as facilitators of physical activity, they reported challenges in supporting them and encountered difficulties in reducing screen viewing time.
“In a study based in Belgium, parents from predominantly medium to high socio-economic backgrounds spoke of using feedback and reward mechanisms, providing children with rationale and choice, and using strategies such as being active with their child or turning a potentially mundane activity (e.g., walking) into something fun (e.g., playing games or singing songs along the way). We recommend that programmes should be targeted at parents from low socio-economic status groups providing information about promoting opportunities to be physically active and supporting the development of self-determined motivation in their children.”
Other recommendations made by the researchers include physical activity promotion programmes which account for religious and cultural barriers to physical activity; and educating parents about physical activity recommendations, emphasising the importance of supporting children to achieve these during evenings and weekends.
Dr Trigwell said: “Our study shows the need to raise awareness amongst certain ethnic groups on the educational benefits of physical activity. At an organisational level, schools need to increase the opportunities for children to be physically active through PE, during recess and throughout the extended school day. For Muslim girls of secondary school age, we recommend that female-only physical activity sessions are provided in appropriate school and community settings, that girls are permitted to wear culturally-appropriate clothing for exercise, and that they are offered a choice of activities that are deemed culturally acceptable. Finally, we also need to create physical activity opportunities in low socio-economic status neighbourhoods that are safe and accessible to children from all ethnic backgrounds.”