If online avatars in all-action computer games could exercise on behalf of the children controlling them, Scotland would be a nation of the superfit.
Leaping over rooftops and up flights of stairs, these virtual men and women are the height of athleticism; it is just a pity that the children operating them get little more exercise than their elderly relatives do watching Countdown.
A love affair with computer games is not the only reason for insufficient exercise levels among children, but it does not help. A study of 7000 seven-year-olds across the UK has found that only just over half of Scottish children are achieving the basic target of one hour of exercise per day. While that is very slightly more than children in England and Wales, it is still worryingly low. With almost half of children sedentary for six to seven hours a day, it is clear that lifelong bad habits are in the making even at this young age.
The reasons for lack of exercise are not straightforward and are different in boys and girls, and in different ethnic groups, with children of Indian origin spending the least time exercising.
Girls of all ethnic backgrounds pose a particular problem, even in the early years of primary school. Only 38% of girls met their daily exercise target in this study, compared to 63% of boys. The gap widens as girls get older. The Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation reports that by age 14, only 12% of girls are active enough. PE classes at school are often blamed by girls for putting them off exercise, because they dislike the competitiveness or because they feel self-conscious. By the time girls leave school, a lifestyle without regular exercise is often ingrained.
Level of exercise is also linked to class: the children of middle-class parents who have expensive gym memberships, go swimming, cycling and play football, are more likely to be encouraged to exercise and to join clubs to play competitive sports.
More shared green open spaces where children can safely play outside; a parental crack-down on computer games; fewer lifts to school from mum and dad to encourage children to walk: if only there were one simple prescription to tackle poor levels of exercise among children, the problem could quickly be solved. In reality, it will require action on all these fronts and others. Good work is already afoot: many schools now offer girls alternatives to traditional competitive sports such as dance or roller-skating. (Unfortunately improving Scotland's weather is not an option.)
If Scotland's children are not eased out of the sitting position and up on to their feet more often, the consequences for them are depressingly predictable. The outcome of a sedentary lifestyle is to be seen pervasively throughout Scottish society: obesity, mobility problems, diabetes, stroke and heart disease. It is 15 years since the problem of childhood obesity first became a major focus of public policy but clearly, as with Scotland's inactive children, more effort is required.
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