Research Case Study

​Ticking time bomb of our children’s falling fitness

Essex research highlighting declining child fitness grabbed headlines worldwide and shaped international child health surveys

  • Tagged under

    Health and wellbeing

  • Lead Academic

    ​Dr Gavin Sandercock

When research highlighting the worrying decline in child fitness levels was unveiled by Dr Gavin Sandercock, the findings grabbed headlines around the world.

Considering they uncovered a ticking health time bomb, with serious implications for the nation’s health, it is no surprise the study made such an impact internationally.

The importance of this research was underlined when the then Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson mentioned the findings in his 2009 Annual Report – a key indicator of major health issues.

From bad to worse

When Dr Sandercock revisited his research six years later he found an even more depressing story - child fitness levels were falling at an even faster rate than first feared, and there was no evidence it was to do with obesity.

In 2009, the team at Essex reported that English children’s fitness was declining at twice the global rate - 0.8% per year. Six years later and his findings suggest fitness has been declining even faster, with an overall drop of 0.95% per year. This time boys’ fitness levels are falling much faster than girls.

Our researchers were the only group to monitor fitness, physical activity and BMI before and after London 2012. The data from 2008 to 2014 showed continued declines in children’s fitness despite a drop in average BMI values. Despite nearly half of children reporting that they felt ‘inspired’ by London 2012, overall the population still became less physically active.

“It has got to the stage now that if we took the least fit pupils from 1998 and put them in a class with 30 of today’s children, they would be one of the five fittest children in that class,” said Dr Gavin Sandercock.

End the BMI obsession

Our research strongly suggests that Britain’s obsession with body mass index (BMI) may be hiding an even more worrying health trend.

The study found that 20% of obese children they tested still had good cardiorespiratory fitness and more than half of children with a BMI considered “overweight” were physically fit.

According to Dr Sandercock, cardiorespiratory fitness is a “great diagnostic tool for measuring how everything is working in the body” and his study indicated that measuring BMI alone may not be enough to monitor children’s future health.

The Chief Medical Officer’s 2009 Annual Report stated: “Having a normal body mass index (BMI) but being unfit confers greater health risks than being ‘fat and fit’. This makes the trend of declining child fitness particularly alarming.” 

How can we reverse this child fitness crisis?

Dr Sandercock has discussed his research findings with several key health professionals, politicians and policy makers.

The Government is investing £150 million annually in children’s physical activity via the Primary PE and School Sports Premium. However, with no ‘evaluation framework’ it will be almost impossible to tell if the Premium is having an impact on pupils’ health.

Dr Sandercock instead advocates measuring children’s ‘physical literacy’ at key developmental stages. Physical literacy does include testing certain elements of fitness (running, jumping, throwing) but also assesses a child’s motivation and confidence to lead physically active lives.

He is not alone.

UK Active has called for fitness testing in primary schools “to avert an NHS time bomb” and Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson wants there to be a shift in focus towards child fitness and away from just their weight.

What does the future hold

Essex research has helped show that good muscular fitness (strength and power) is as important for health as aerobic fitness. One recent study found overweight and obese children with good muscular fitness had lower levels of blood pressure than those who were weaker.

Dr Sandercock feels the next big health issue could be strength. Early findings from his latest research have already shown a significant drop in strength levels – down 15 per cent from 1998-2008. There has also been a 20 per cent increase in the number of children who are unable to support their own weight.

There are many factors why children are not as fit as they were a decade ago. With the help of research like Dr Sandercock’s, policy makers will have a greater understanding of what is needed to solve this important health issue.

Some parts of world are already listening.

Dr Sandercock has been working with the Department for Education in Colombia, where they fitness surveyed 50,000 children and Essex alumnus Dr Daniel Cohen is involved in similar programs that have measured children's fitness in Chile.

Research team

  • Dr Gavin Sandercock, School of Sport, Rehabilitation and Exercise Sciences, University of Essex
  • Dr Christine Voss, University of British Columbia, Canada
  • Dr Daniel Cohen, University of Bucaramanga, Colombia
  • Dr Ayodele Ogunleye