Sport, health and physical activity in children

Posted: Fri, 06 Apr 2018 09:19

Sport, health and physical activity in children

By Dr Tara Coppinger, Department of Sport, Leisure and Childhood Studies at Cork Institute of Technology

As childhood obesity has grown significantly in recent years, a lack of physical activity (PA) linked, in part, to a fall in participation in sport, has been widely acknowledged as a key contributor.

Similarly, the relationship between childhood PA and the impact this has on (i) child health (ii) adult health and (iii) lifelong health behaviours, attracts widespread interest. Yet, the evidence to support these relationships remains relatively weak and much of the existing research focuses on adults. Children, with their unique behaviours and characteristics, require focused research and interventions that can improve long-term health outcomes.

The World Health Organisation (2011) recognise sports participation to have a substantial influence on the amount of health-enhancing PA undertaken. Sport, in the context of PA, can be viewed as an attractive and motivating form of exercise that can be very effective at empowering populations to take action to improve their health (Bailey et al. 2013). Research examining the relationship between child sports participation and PA, however, remains conflicting (Malina, 2001; Wickel and Eisenmann, 2007; Telford et al, 2015). Some studies have shown that although children partake in sport, they still don't meet the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous PA per day guidelines (Telford et al. 2015) and sedentariness is not uncommon in some sports (Nelson et al. 2011). Yet, the additional benefits obtained from learned sports skills being readily transferable to other skills that support an active lifestyle (Bailey et al., 2013; Malina, 2012) should not be underestimated.

In addition to PA, participation in sport during childhood has shown interrelationships between fundamental motor skills (the ability to throw, hop, jump, skip etc.) and physical fitness (Lloyd et al. 2010). Some researchers believe that it is through the mastery of these fundamental skills that lifelong adherence to sport and PA is enabled; as through the learning of a wide range of movement skills in childhood, we have the physical competence to participate in a broader range of activities and sports as we age (Bailey et al. 2013; Seefeldt and Haubenstricker, 1982; Clark, 2005). In fact, some theorists acknowledge the period of childhood as so important for movement skill learning that if they aren't given the opportunity to develop a broad foundation of skills during childhood, they never will (Balyi, 1998).

It has only been in recent years that attention has been given to health as a core objective of sporting organisations (Kohl et al. 2012), with sport policy now including PA into its overarching aims in order to increase participation for all (Department of Culture, Media and Sport, 2015; Sport England, 2015). Intersectoral work at various levels is recognised as the most successful approach to increasing PA in populations (Bauman et al. 2012; Roussos and Fausett, 2000) and through utilising skilful practitioners, some promising progress is being made. Examples include trying to combat sporting and PA inequalities, activating disadvantaged groups, and more attention being paid to urban planning and how to make the transportation infrastructure more conducive to active transportation. Yet more work still needs to be done, as the sports sector, in particular, continue to be underutilised with regards their ability to promote PA. Greater support must be given to local authorities and community organisations in order to create safe, accessible local environments that encourage sport and PA for all children (WHO, 2007).

Although participation in sport alone is not enough to ensure that children can accrue the health benefits associated with being physically active, initiatives should be developed that facilitate better access for all children to sport. This would improve current levels of sport participation and prevent dropout (Vella et al. 2015); particularly as there are limited other resources available to promote positive health behaviours (Taliaferro, 2010). Governments, sporting organisations and health agencies need to recognise this potential through partnerships and collaboration, which can then empower young people and their communities to take action to promote their health.


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Vella, S. A., Cliff, D. P., Magee, C. A., Okely, A. D. (2015). Associations between sports participation and psychological difficulties during childhood: A two-year follow up. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 18(3), 304-309.

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Tags: Childhood Obesity, Government, Health, Inequality, Participation, Physical Activity, Policy, Sport, Young People


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