23 June 2014

Want a sporty child? Make sure they are born in the autumn

Colchester Campus

autumn-born children

School sports day season will soon be upon us, bringing a mixture of dread and excitement to children across the country depending on their sporting prowess.

For sporty youngsters it is their chance to shine in front of their peers and parents, whereas for others it is a day of despair and despondency.

But do some children have an advantage? New research from the University has found that children born in certain months of the year are much fitter, stronger and more powerful than those born in other months.

Researchers studied 8,000 children and measured their fitness, muscle strength and power and found that those born in the autumn had a clear physical advantage over children born at other times of the year.

Published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, the research found that children born in November, for example, were fitter and more powerful than those born at other times, in particular those with birthdays in April, May and June. October-born children were stronger than those born in all other months except September and November.

Dr Gavin Sandercock, who led the research at Essex, said: “We already know that children born at the beginning of the school year in September have an academic advantage, are more likely to get picked for school teams and are even more likely to go on and play professional sport. This is what is called 'the relative age effect'. Our research however, suggests something else may be at work.

“We controlled for the relative age effect in this study so we are only comparing month by month. What we found was quite surprising, that a boy born in November can run at least 10% faster, jump 12% higher and is 15% more powerful than a child of exactly the same age born in April. This is, potentially a huge physical advantage.”

The researchers suggested that higher Vitamin D levels from exposure to sunlight late on in pregnancy could be the cause.

“We know autumn babies tend to be bigger than spring-born children,” added Dr Sandercock, “but this is the first time anyone has found this might lead to being fitter.

“The major problem for children born in the spring and summer is that as well as being relatively younger than children in their school-year born in autumn, it also seems they have a real physiological disadvantage too.”

This problem could have a real effect on spring and summer-born children's sporting chances or their participation in sport as they may find it very difficult to get into school teams.

The researchers suggest that using “age on day of event” groupings would help to reduce this bias and that sports like rugby would be fairer if children were grouped by weight.

“We found another odd thing with the data, that children born in September and October tended to live in more affluent areas. It would be interesting to find out whether more well-off families are deliberately timing pregnancies to make sure their children have the advantage at school,” added Dr Sandercock.

With autumn-born children having an advantage both academically and physically over their peers, Dr Sandercock offers one solution, albeit a radical one.

“We're not suggesting changing the school calendar, but shifting the age-group cut-off by six months to 1 March would make the playing field a little more level for the least fit children born in April and allow children from different school years to mix through sport.

“However, we do realise that this would probably be a lot of work for schools to manage.”

The research team now want to do further research in whether month of birth might affect children's physical activity levels and their health.

Ends
Note to Editors

For more information or to interview Dr Gavin Sandercock please contact the University of Essex Communications Office on 01206 872400 or email comms@essex.ac.uk.

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