Kids and Teens Face Physical Inactivity Crisis

Coaching HER

Physical inactivity in children and teenagers is spiralling out of control – and so are the health impacts and treatment costs.

Stuck in Place

Although the number of children exercising has generally returned to pre-pandemic levels, WHO (World Health Organization) recently reported that kids simply aren’t moving enough to be considered healthy.

  • 81% of 11–17-year-olds are inactive, with girls and young women (and those from lower socio-economic groups) most affected.
  • Across the world, more young females are considered inactive compared to their male peers, registering 85% and 77.6%, respectively
  • Rates of global obesity are rising fastest in children and adolescents, with cases growing twofold between 2020 and 2035.

A heavy burden. Between 2020 and 2030 (when many teens will then be adults), cumulative healthcare costs due to inactivity will be $20B in the UK, $566B in the US, $10B in France and $4B in Australia. Yet, despite the acute need for long-term crisis management, only 44% of countries have developed physical activity guidelines for children.

Not oblivious to such sobering data, governments, organisations and companies are building strategies promoting activity to help young people overcome complex engagement barriers.

School’s in. With the global consensus recommending at least one hour of daily activity for 5–17-year-olds, schools’ traditional PE rules are up for debate and disruption:

  • In July, the UK government released an action plan for schools to deliver two hours of PE each week.
  • Earlier this year, This Girl Can and Sport England launched Studio You, on-demand digital PE lessons for girls disengaged from their school setup.
  • While outcomes are not yet clear, the Paris 2024 Olympics launched an initiative to mandate 30 minutes/day in French schools, where PE classes are the main source of activity for 80% of kids.
  • Sports leaders in Australia are calling for Year 11 and 12 students (ages 14–16) to have compulsory PE lessons (currently optional).

With kids losing 74% of cardiovascular fitness during summer holidays (and 18x faster for those from deprived homes), some initiatives are thinking extra-curricular.

ukactive x Nike’s Open Doors campaign, now in its third year, unlocks school sports facilities for kids (spotlighting girls and low-income households) during summer holidays (a time when physical activity historically falls off).

After seeing gains in recreational activities, Parkwood Leisure partnered with digital waitlist tool Fitronics to increase accessibility to swim lessons, and London-based bike subscription site Bike Club acquired Spain’s Bicircular to meet demand.

Girl time. Zooming in on the UK, Women in Sport found one in three girls avoid exercise after primary school – reasons include fear during periods, feeling unsafe and being judged.

Rising to the challenge, the UK’s public sector has upped its focus on gender and socio-economic barriers. For example, Women in Sport’s Big Sister scheme supported 19K girls, resulting in six in 10 enjoying sport more.

Takeaway: Increasing youth activity levels is highly complex and stands the best chance with public and private sector collaboration. Leaving no one behind, more highly visible schemes that solve barriers to engagement – such as Big Sister, Nike’s Coaching HER and Athleta’s Power of She – are crucial if we want more young girls to stick at sport and be healthy for life.

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