New research shows less than half of mums meet the recommended levels of exercise, with those with young children managing to do the least.
The results come from an analysis of data from the Southampton Women’s Survey (SWS), by researchers at the Universities of Southampton and Cambridge.
Influenced by family size and children's ages
The recommended amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is 150 minutes per week. But this study found less than 50% of mothers met this target, regardless of the ages of their children.
The researchers analysed data from 848 women who took part in the SWS. They examined how family composition affected the amount of physical activity mothers did. The results are published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The women, aged 20-34 years, joined the SWS between 1998 and 2002, with follow ups over later years. They each wore an accelerometer – which is like a smart watch – to assess their activity levels.
Women with school-aged children did an average of 26 minutes moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day. Those with more than one child did less, around 21 minutes. Mothers with younger children (aged four years or less) only managed around 18 minutes.
However, when it came to light intensity exercise, mums with two or more children all under five did more than those with school children.
Professor Keith Godfrey from the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre and MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Centre said:
“It is perhaps not unexpected that mothers who have young children or several children engage in less intense physical activity, but this is the first study that has quantified the significance of this reduction. More needs to be done by local government planners and leisure facility providers to support mothers in engaging in physical activity.”
Not getting the benefits of exercise
Physical activity has many health benefits, particularly when it is moderate to vigorous. It reduces the risk of a wide range of diseases, from cancer to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It also helps us stay a healthy weight and protects our mental health.
Evidence suggests physical activity can help parents cope with the daily challenges of being a parent. If active together, it can also strengthen parents' relationship with their children. Despite this, parents tend to be less active than non-parents.
Dr Kathryn Hesketh from the University of Cambridge said:
“When you have small children, your parental responsibilities can be all-consuming, and it’s often hard to find the time to be active outside of time spent caring for your children. Exercise is often therefore one of the first things to fall by the wayside, and so most of the physical activity mums manage to do seems to be of a lower intensity."
“However, when children go to school, mums manage to do more physical activity. There are a number of possible reasons why this might be the case, including more opportunities to take part in higher intensity activities with their children. You may return to active commuting, or feel more comfortable using time to be active alone.”
Dr Debbie Chase, Director of Public Health at Southampton City Council said:
“We understand that being a parent can really limit the time and resources available for being physically active, so we want to support mothers to move more in a way that works for them.
"It could be that mothers start to introduce short walks with the buggy in their local park, or light activities around the house when their baby is sleeping.
"Being active is so essential not only for our physical health but our mental health too, and I’d really encourage any mothers and parents to introduce physical activity into their day in a way that’s easy and comfortable for them. Remember, any activity is better than none and ‘Every movement counts’.”