Ashrafunnesa Khanom, Lead author, Swansea University Medical School. The research was a collaboration between Swansea University Medical School, the Centre of Population Health, National Centre for Mental Health, Cardiff University, and Hywel Dda University Health Board.
Physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of mortality worldwide. Being inactive and following a sedentary lifestyle at an early age is linked to weight gain through childhood.
Many young children aged 2-6 years old do not complete the recommended daily minimum of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. To improve this, targeting interventions at early years (0-8 years old) could instil healthy behaviours in young children. This is especially important because childhood is a critical period when physical activity can be nurtured to sustain an active lifestyle in the future.
Parents can greatly influence the physical activity of their child. Increasing whole-family activity could potentially reduce the likelihood of childhood obesity and improve their overall health. Children are more likely to become active if one parent is active, and this likelihood increases if both parents are active. Children with active parents are more likely to maintain activity levels through childhood. However, parents and adults in general undermine the value of physical activity as a means of reducing weight gain in children.
Interventions which focus on individuals and their families can often ignore the social, economic, and environmental barriers which stop people from undertaking physical activity. Individuals often have no to little control over these barriers, which can prevent those individuals from maintaining positive health behaviours.
A team of researchers from Swansea University interviewed 61 parents who were expecting a child or who had a baby under 12 months. The team conducted 35 mother and father paired interviews and 26 interviews with mothers only.
Families were purposively sampled for neighbourhood deprivation status, 26 of which were from affluent neighbourhoods and 35 were from deprived neighbourhoods.
Researchers identified 4 themes including work family-life balance, spaces for activity, beliefs and attitudes, and physical activity facilitators.
Parents from deprived neighbourhoods are more likely to be inactive because of a number of community, social, and personal factors which reduced motivation and hampered opportunity for physical activity.
To improve knowledge and opportunity, participants suggested ‘help not tell’ messages covering ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘where’ information about physical activity and using physical activity to support community engagement and social interaction.
Recommendations from parents highlight effective communication about the importance of early child and family physical activity and improved community access to safe facilities and opportunities.
Engaging both parents and communities in identifying, designing, and delivering interventions may help support greater physical activity and healthy behaviours which are suitable and achievable in individuals’ lives.