Research published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal suggests that children can benefit more from active play compared to structured exercise.
"When it comes to combating obesity and increasing children’s daily physical activity levels, active play is just as important, if not more so, than structured exercise," says Associate Professor Erica Hinckson from AUT University’s Centre for Child Health Research and Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition.
The research examined perceptions of physical activity versus ‘play’ amongst parents and children from socio-economically deprived areas. Findings revealed that participants viewed physical activity and play quite differently, which could lead to barriers in engaging with any type of healthy activity.
"Physical activity was seen as structured activity, undertaken for a specific timeframe every day, whereas play was seen as unstructured activity which involved having fun," says Hinckson.
"The view that physical activity is something structured (in order to be beneficial) seemed to distance participants from engagement. There was a strong perception that physical activity was ‘good for you’, rather than ‘being fun’, and this perception seemed to be a barrier to children getting involved in physical activity."
A group of South Auckland school children (age 8-12), and their parents took part in the study where the aim was to identify factors influencing healthy and overweight children’s after school activities.
Previous research has found significant differences in the health and weight of children from lower socio-economic backgrounds compared to middle income families.
"After school community activity programmes have been identified as a means of increasing overall activity levels in children, however the emphasis of these should be on ‘play’ rather than physical activity."
Hinckson says that while interventions focusing on active play have proved successful at increasing physical activity, some practitioners do not view play as physically demanding or able to provide children with the same benefits of structured exercise.
Despite this, previous research has shown that children engage with more moderate to vigorous physical activity from active play during lunch break at school than from structured exercise in physical education classes.
Parents in the study also highlighted a number of potential barriers to increased physical activity levels in their children; these included time, money and transport. Community support and communication were identified as important in creating safer communities and places to play for children.
"For after school community activity programmes to be successful, a safe neighbourhood environment in conjunction with increased community support is really important for parents.
"Free or low cost programmes, supervised playgrounds, improved community communication and support, car pooling kids to activities - these were amongst some of the recommendations we received from our parents to increase physical activity of children in their neighbourhoods," says Hinckson.
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