A drive to encourage children to become more active has been proposed after a study revealed low levels of vigorous physical activity in youngsters from some ethnic minority backgrounds.

University of Cambridge researchers examined the data gained from 5,200 children in the UK, all aged seven. They discovered a widespread sedentary culture in youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds and some ethnic minority backgrounds, particularly Pakistani and Bangladeshi.

International guidelines encourage youngsters to be active for 60 minutes or more a day, taking part in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity. But researchers found large-scale inequalities in those who actually hit this target.

Youngsters from mothers with higher levels of education spent more time being active, achieving three minutes more vigorous activity per day, compared to children from mothers with lower levels of education. This pattern was also reflected when it came to household incomen, with youngsters from poorer families shown to exercise less on average.

Additionally, there were differences noted between ethnicities. The findings suggested that white British children exercised for over three minutes more a day compared to youngsters from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds. Also, youngsters from ‘other ethnic groups’ accumulated a total of 2.2 minutes less of this vigorous intensity activity per day.

Researcher Rebecca Love, who is from the university’s Centre for Diet and Activity Research, said: “When we look at overall physical activity we don’t see clear differences between children from different backgrounds despite clear inequalities in obesity. To investigate this further, we looked at whether overall physical activity was hiding inequalities in the intensity with which that activity is performed that might explain these patterns.”

The children studied were born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002, with the data taken from a long-term research project called the Millennium Cohort Study. They had been handed accelerometers, with their activity tracked for at least ten hours over three-day periods.

Dr Esther van Sluijs, who led the research, said: “There are clear differences in the amount of vigorous physical activity a child does depending on their socioeconomic and ethnic background. Although individually, these differences are small, at a population level they are likely to make a difference. Changes to reduce existing gaps in vigorous intensity activity could help reduce existing inequalities in levels of obesity in children.”

The study was funded by the British Heart Foundation and Department of Health as well as the Economic and Social Research Council, Medical Research Council and Wellcome. It was published in the journal BMJ Open.

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