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Active children have a better quality of life, study finds

New research shows that being active is good for children’s self-esteem and friendships.

Insights from an international study suggest that an active lifestyle can enhance children's health-related quality of life. This is a measure of their overall health and wellbeing.

Prof Keith Godfrey from the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) was part of the study team. It also involved researchers from Singapore, France, Finland and Germany.

Their analysis has been published in The Lancet Regional Health – Western Pacific.

Measuring activity

The NHS recommends that children and young people aged 5-18 do at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous intensity physical activity a day. Keeping fit from a young age can reduce the risk of major illnesses in later life. It also helps us stay a healthy weight and protects our mental health.

This study analysed physical activity data from 370 children aged 8 years. They are all taking part in a birth cohort study in Singapore. Further physical activity measurements were made at age ten years.

They each wore an accelerometer – which is like a smart watch – to assess their activity levels. It measured sleep, inactivity, light and moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity.

The children also completed a questionnaire on quality of life during the follow up visit at age ten.

Better quality of life

Children who were more physically active had higher self-esteem and stronger friendships. Those who slept for longer also reported a higher quality of life and were more likely to do well in school.

The analyses suggested that children’s quality of life was lower if sleep was replaced with inactivity. This wasn't the case when replaced with physical activity.

The researchers suggest that this finding could be due to increased screen time. Previous studies have shown excessive screen time can have a negative effect on children’s health and wellbeing.

The children’s movement behaviours were not, however, associated with their physical and emotional well-being.

Prof Godfrey is a Professor of Epidemiology and Human Development at the University of Southampton and lead for Nutrition, Lifestyle and Metabolism in the NIHR Southampton BRC. He said:

“Children’s quality of life is an area of wide concern.

“The Good Childhood Report 2023 from the Children’s Society looked at how children’s wellbeing is changing over time. The analysis painted a ‘worrying picture’ for girls, as their happiness scores were significantly lower in 2020-21 than in 2009-10."

Previous reports have also shown that children in the UK, especially girls, are among the most unhappy in Europe.

Prof Godfrey added: “The findings from our new research point to the importance of promoting physical activity and healthy sleep. This can help improve children’s self-esteem and friendships.”


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