Highlighting the importance of physical activity in early years

Highlighting the importance of physical activity in early years

‘Working together to increase physical activity in early years is vital to improving children’s overall health and wellbeing’ – that’s what delegates heard at a seminar about the importance of ensuring children get off to the best start in life.

The seminar was jointly hosted by the Public Health Agency (PHA) and the British Heart Foundation’s National Centre for Physical Activity and Health (BHFNC).

The purpose of the event was to consider the scientific evidence on the importance of physical activity in the early years and to identify further opportunities for working together to encourage and increase activity to ensure that more of our under-fives achieve the recommendations outlined in the CMO Guidelines on Physical Activity for Early Years.

Angela McComb, Health and Social Wellbeing Improvement Manager, PHA, explained: “There is good scientific evidence that being physically active has many benefits whatever our age. For example, it improves our mood, increases our sense of wellbeing and helps to prevent or manage over 20 health problems, including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

“For the under-fives, being active is very beneficial as it improves brain development, improves self-confidence, supports the development of social skills, enhances bone and muscular development and helps to develop coordination.

“Being active also helps to maintain a healthy weight which is particularly important in Northern Ireland, where about three in five adults and more than a fifth of five year olds are either overweight or obese.

 “Teasing and bullying about appearance can affect a child’s confidence and self-esteem, leading to isolation and depression which in turn, can impact on their mental health and wellbeing, school attendance and level of academic achievement.

“Children who are overweight tend to grow into adults who are overweight, and therefore have a higher risk of developing health problems in later life.”

UK-wide guidelines for physical activity were published for the first time for pre-school children in 2010. These recommend that:

  • Children should be encouraged to be active from birth, for example through encouraging kicking during ‘nappy off time’, ‘tummy’ time, parent and baby swim sessions, and reaching for and grasping objects, playing on the floor etc.
  • Young children up to five years, = who are able to walk without help, should be  involved in active play for at least three hours each day, spread throughout the day. Examples of activities that children enjoy include running, skipping, throwing, kicking and catching balls; dancing, climbing, and riding trikes or bicycles.

At present most pre-school children spend around 120-150 minutes a day being active, which is between 30 minutes and one hour less than the guidelines recommend. Children whose parents are active tend to be more active, so parents and carers have an important function to perform as role models.

Angela McComb concluded: “The evidence for the benefits of being active at a very young age is convincing and it is for this reason that it is absolutely vital that we work together with partner organisations to increase awareness, opportunities and involvement in physical activity to improve young people’s health and educational outcomes.”

Sonia McGeorge, Director, BHFNC, added: “The importance of physical activity in the early years has been recognised with the publication of UK physical activity guidelines specifically for the under fives last July. Events like this are important for sharing information about the guidelines with practitioners who work with young children and in giving them practical tools to help increase the physical activity levels of the babies and young children they work with.”

Dr Michael McBride, Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland, said: “Physical activity, especially in the form of physically active play, during the early development of children’s lives should be encouraged throughout all Early Years settings and it is also a valuable opportunity for families to spend time together playing and having fun.  It is particularly important that we inform parents of the advantages this can have on the health and wellbeing of their children as good habits and practice developed early on can have a lasting positive impact into their later lives.

“Participation in regular physical activity, especially in combination with eating a healthy balanced diet, provides many health benefits throughout the life course.”

Further information

For further media information contact PHA Communications on (028) 9055 3663