Low fitness levels during childhood are associated with increased future risk of a myriad of health issues. Image courtesy Shutterstock.com

Not just child’s play – study provides benchmark for identifying those at risk

Boys perform better than girls in speed, limb strength and cardiorespiratory fitness, whilst girls have the edge in balance and flexibility, according to a landmark study of European children which hopes to provide useful data in the fight against childhood obesity and other health issues.

Over 10,000 children aged between 6 and 11 took part in the research, which is the first to provide sex and age-specific physical reference standards for the age group in Europe.

The exercises included a cardiorespiratory fitness test, a ‘flamingo’ balance test, a handgrip strength test, a standing long jump, a 40m sprint and a sit-and-reach test for flexibility.

The results, published in the International Journal of Obesity, found that girls had better balance and flexibility than boys, whilst boys performed better in speed and agility, muscular strength and cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF). Overall, older children performed better than younger children, except for CRF in boys and flexibility in girls.

Low fitness levels during childhood and adolescence are associated with increased future risk of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, impaired skeletal health, reduced quality of life and poor mental health. In spite of the much publicised benefits of being physically active, young people’s performance in fitness tests has declined over the last three decades.

Dr Luis Gracia-Marco of the Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre within Sport & Health Sciences at the University of Exeter, one of the study’s authors, said: “There is a real scarcity of data on standards of fitness for children. Our study is the first to provide standard values of sex and age-specific fitness for this age group of children in Europe. These values may be useful in identifying those children at higher risk of developing unfavourable health outcomes owing to their low fitness level.”

The researchers suggest the data could be useful for schools, sports clubs and other organisations to help classify when a child’s performance could indicate that there is a risk to their health in the future. For example, low scores on CRF and handgrip tests are associated with cardiovascular issues.

A total of 10,302 children from eight European countries took part in the study.

Date: 11 November 2014

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