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Arnold School of Public Health

Children’s physical activity drops sharply during transition from elementary to high school

Researchers from the Department of Exercise Science and the Children’s Physical Activity Research Group (CPARG) have completed research examining the age-related changes in physical activity that occur as children transition from elementary to high school. They published their findings in Preventive Medicine Reports.

To combat childhood obesity and promote health and wellness among youth and adolescents, the evidenced-based Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that 6- to 17-year-olds engage in 60 or more minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity each day. Prior studies have already shown that while many younger children meet that guideline, compliance decreases dramatically as they grow older.

“With this study, we were looking for changes in the total amount of moderate-to-vigorous activity,” says Russell Pate, director of CPARG and chair of the committee that developed the physical activity guidelines. “We also checked to see if those patterns differed across demographic groups, such as gender, race/ethnicity, parent education or socioeconomic status and rural vs urban residence.”

The team analyzed data (measured by activity trackers) collected during the longitudinal Transitions and Activity Changes in Kids (TRACK) Study. Participants included nearly a thousand students from two public school districts in South Carolina between 2010 and 2017. As expected, the researchers found a pattern of age-related decline in total physical activity during the transition period between elementary and high school. 

The decline was noticeably steeper leading up to age 14, with a slower rate of decline after that age. The authors also found lower levels of physical activity among girls (compared to boys) with a sharper rate of decline overall. They did not find a significant difference in physical activity patterns across race/ethnicity/groups, though they did find lower rates of physical activity among children who live in rural areas and those whose parents have more education. These differences increased with age. 

“These findings confirm previous research from our team and others that children experience a particularly steep decrease in physical activity as they transition from elementary to middle school,” Pate says. “With this study, we now know that this trend is particularly prominent in girls, children living in rural areas, and children of parents with college education – suggesting that public health interventions aimed at promoting health in children and youth should be tailored to target these groups.” 



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