Children today a lot less fit than previous generations, research shows
Children’s grip strength seems to be improving year over year but other measures of their fitness levels are declining, recent research shows.
Throughout 2020, Grant Tomkinson, professor of education, health and behaviour at the University of North Dakota in the United States, led a research team to measure the disparities in children’s fitness levels over time using physical strength indicators.
Hailing from Australia, Tomkinson completed his undergraduate degree in sport science from the University of New South Wales and, later, his PhD in human movement from the University of South Australia.
He competed in track at the state and national levels during his post-secondary years.
During this time, Tomkinson took a particular interest in children’s fitness levels and capabilities, and how those levels differed in children born in different time periods.
“What I was really interested in is not how the physical fitness of kids changes as they age but if we were to take a typical 12-year-old boy or girl in the year 2000 and compare that to the typical 12-year-old boy or girl from 1990, 1980, 1970, how would they match up?”
Tomkinson used aerobics, cardiorespiratory fitness, and muscular strength and power as measures of fitness levels to calculate the physical disparities of children aged nine to 17 years worldwide compared to previous generations.
“When it comes to kids, I would say it’s probably widely accepted that their cardiorespiratory or aerobic fitness – that is their ability to perform long and exhaustive exercises that use the big muscles of the body like cycling, running and swimming – is the most important measure of health,” he says.
Results showed that, internationally, children’s grip strength had increased over time.
But other measures of fitness such as abdominal endurance, leg power or the ability to jump horizontally, rose until around the year 2000 – and have been in decline ever since.
Examining these studies now comes at an important time: Over the past two years, childhood obesity in Hong Kong has accelerated thanks to lifestyle changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Although it is widely accepted that physical fitness is good for overall wellness, recent research shows that sports and cardiorespiratory fitness are also linked to improved brain functioning, memory and academic performance.
“In 2020, the World Health Organization recommended that children and adolescents aged five to 17 years should do at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily,” said Cindy Sit, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Sports Science and Physical Education at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Sit said the university’s Active Healthy Kids 2018 Hong Kong Report Card gave a D grade for Hong Kong children and young people’s physical fitness.
“Using cardiorespiratory fitness as an indicator, this means that about 30 per cent of Hong Kong children and youth met the international benchmark for relative peak oxygen uptake determined by a 20-metre [66 feet] shuttle-run test, suggesting poor cardiorespiratory fitness.”
When it comes to grip strength, Sit believes the increase could be indicative of children’s daily activities or chores, such as turning doorknobs, opening jars, manipulating phones, iPads, computers and more.
However, she notes that a handgrip test is used to measure the maximum force generated by one’s forearm muscles, which is less dependent on exercise technique or other general fitness levels.
“Based on Grant’s research, it appears that children’s muscular fitness or what we now call ‘strength fitness’ has seemed to decline,” says Sit. “As such, a group of researchers came up with a construct of ‘paediatric dynapenia’ in 2017.”
“Paediatric dynapenia refers to children’s poor muscular fitness and consequent functional limitations not resulting from neurological or muscular disorders, activity-related injuries and adverse health outcomes.”
Troublingly, Sit and other experts have found this to be a particular issue in Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong children’s fitness levels are low and require much attention,” said Sit.
“In addition to sedentarism, often considered its own ‘global pandemic’, Hong Kong children are also found to be obese or overweight. This indicator was graded as D- in our 2018 Hong Kong Report Card.”
Some of the reasons Sit and other experts believe this to be such a big factor in Hong Kong is inactive and busy parents, a high emphasis on academic performance, high usage of technology such as computers and smartphones that result in sedentary behaviours, and convenient and “passive modes” of public transport.
Another factor that has been especially apparent during the pandemic is insufficient facilities or neighbourhood parks that promote opportunities for active play and outdoor play.
Hong Kong is considered to be among the top 10 cities in the world for population density, yet it does not have adequate park space to reflect this.
Both Sit and Grant believe the pandemic has offered a chance to rethink our approach to fitness and reshape our relationship with it for the future.
“What we need to do right now is we need to retool, especially as we are in this Covid time, and we need to reimagine what physical activity looks like,” said Grant.
Grant and Sit both cite the idea of urbanised micro-exercising for children to break up days of study and get children’s brains activated and stimulated, in addition to sports or regular physical exercise.
“I think we live in a risk-averse society nowadays and I think we have to focus less on the hurt and more on the dirt,” said Grant, referring to parents who are fearful their children may injure and muddy themselves taking part in outdoor activities.
“We need to climb those trees and dig into the ground and get outdoors as safely as we can, being very cognisant of the current environment in which we live, and I think that’s a great lead-up to lifelong physical activity.”
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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.