Assessing the impact of COVID-19 on the physical activity of 10-11-year-old children and their parents: Active-6 a mixed-methods study

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


Background: Physical activity is essential for long-term health, yet data from before the COVID-19 pandemic showed only 41% of 10-11-year-olds met the UK government’s physical activity recommendations. Children’s physical activity was limited during the national COVID-19 lockdowns. It is important to measure children’s physical activity in the recovery period to assess the short- and medium-term impact of the lockdowns.

Objectives: To use mixed-methods to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) of Year 6 children in the short-term (2021) and medium-term (2022) recovery periods by comparing these to data sampled from the same schools in 2017/18.

Methods: Quantitative and qualitative data were collected in two waves: Wave 1 (May-December 2021) when lockdowns had finished but some COVID-19 mitigation policies were still in place and Wave 2 (January-July 2022) when most restrictions had been removed. These were compared with baseline data from similar Year 6 children and parents/carers in the same schools collected between March 2017-June 2018 (Wave 0).

Results: In Wave 1, average child accelerometer-measured weekday MVPA was 7-8 minutes lower than pre-pandemic while sedentary time was higher by almost 30 minutes. Child MVPA had recovered to pre-pandemic levels in Wave 2, although sedentary time remained elevated. Across our studies, we found a new normal for child physical activity, characterised as more dependent on structured activities such as active clubs. Physical activity inequalities appear to be widening among girls and low socioeconomic position families, as they face unique barriers to participating in the new normal.

Limitations: Our sample includes more households with higher educational qualifications and predominantly female parents. Undertaking this research in schools while COVID-19 disruptions were ongoing created challenges to data collection which may have limited schools’ and families’ participation.

Conclusions: COVID-19 lockdowns negatively impacted child physical activity. It took almost a year of no restrictions for this to recover, and sedentary time remains high. Despite this recovery, 59% of children do not meet activity guidelines. There is a new normal to child physical activity that relies on structured activities, and some children and families may face challenges to taking part in the new normal. Strategies are needed to increase child physical activity for all.

Future work:
Develop new ways to work in partnership with schools to design bespoke physical activity programs that can be delivered at the school site.
Develop new ways to help girls and children from lower income households to be physically active.
Find the most effective means of maximising existing school resources such as extended school provision (after-school clubs) and physical resources (equipment) to promote physical activity outside of curriculum time.

Study registration: The University of Bristol agreed to act as the sponsor for this study. The project was listed on the research registry (project 6646).

Funding details: This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Public Health programme and will be published in Public Health Research. See the NIHR Journals Library website for further project information.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPublic Health Research
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 1 Aug 2023

Structured keywords

  • HEHP@Bristol


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