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23 May 2011

Children becoming weaker says research

Colchester Campus

Boy climbing tree

Worrying research which highlighted falling levels of child fitness over the past decade has been followed by a new study which has found that children’s strength is also in decline.

Whilst aerobic fitness/stamina has dropped by about 8 per cent in the past 10 years, new research by scientists at University of Essex and London Metropolitan University shows that measures of strength declined even more dramatically.

The study, published in journal of child health Acta Paediatrica, found that the number of sit-ups 10-year-old children could do had dropped by 27 per cent, arm strength dropped by 26 per cent and children’s handgrip strength dropped by 7 per cent.

One in 10 children were unable to hold their own weight when hanging on a wall bar in the gym – 10 years ago it was one in 20.

However, the researchers feel these worrying findings are hiding the real extent of the declines in child strength levels as many children were unwilling to attempt the ‘bent-arm-hang’ test when tested recently.

Dr Gavin Sandercock, who led the research at Essex, pointed out that many of the children simply refused to try and hold their weight on the wall bar or said they “could not do it”.

Explained Dr Sandercock: “This is probably due to changes in physical activity patterns among English 10-year-olds such as taking part less in activities like rope climbing in PE and tree climbing for fun. Typically, these activities boosted children’s strength, making them able to lift and hold their own body weight.”

Despite measures of strength declining amongst 10-year-olds, the study found that body weight and body mass index (BMI) stayed more or less the same over the 10-year period.

The paper’s author, Daniel Cohen, at London Metropolitan University, pointed out that this might mean although the children weighed the same ten years ago, the children measured more recently were probably made up of more fat and less muscle – something that measuring BMI does not tell you.

The findings highlight important public health implications as research shows that muscle strength helps protect against obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adulthood.

"Our findings underline the importance of including the assessment of muscular fitness in recommendations for the monitoring of health-related fitness in children," added Mr Cohen.

The researchers are now calling on the Government to reduce its emphasis on the measurement of BMI in children, and echo the former Chief Medical Officer, Liam Donaldson’s call for the introduction of fitness testing in schools in his final report in 2010.

Historically, children’s strength improved after the Second World War due to better diet and healthcare leading to bigger, taller children.

This new study, however, shows in recent years child strength has decreased, unrelated to weight and height, suggesting that lower physical activity and more time spent in sedentary behaviours like watching TV or playing computer games are the most likely causes. It also highlights the importance of children taking part in activities that stimulate not only the development of aerobic fitness but also muscle strength.

Ends

Note to editors
For more information please contact the University of Essex Communications Office on 01206 872400 or e-mail comms@essex.ac.uk

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