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Children and physical activity: a systematic review of barriers and facilitators

What do we want to know?

Physical activity promotion is high on the public health policy agenda in the UK. Evidence regarding increased prevalence of obesity and inactivity amongst children is mounting. Children are a particularly important group, as low levels of physical activity in childhood have been linked with low levels in adulthood. Material and social context affect children's participation in physical activity, with those at greatest risk of inactivity belonging to groups considered to be 'socially excluded'. This review was undertaken to address what is known about the barriers to, and facilitators of, physical activity amongst children aged four to 10. It aimed to bring together the findings from 'qualitative' as well as 'quantitative' research on these barriers and facilitators.

Who wants to know?

Policy-makers, practitioners, researchers, parents, children.

What did we find?  

  • There are few evaluated health promotion interventions which address physical activity beyond school-based physical education, and even fewer have been rigorously evaluated. 

  • Interventions shown to be effective include: education and provision of equipment for monitoring TV or video-game use; engaging parents in supporting and encouraging their children's physical activity; and multi-component, multi-site interventions using a combination of school-based physical education and home-based activities.  

  • While children have clear views on the barriers to, and facilitators of their participation in physical activity, their views are often ignored in the development of interventions.

  • Approaches which appear to take into account the views of children in the UK, but which require further evaluation and development, include those which: provide children with a diverse range of physical activities to choose from; emphasise the aspects of participating in physical activity that children value (e.g. opportunities to spend time with friends); provide free or low-cost transportation and reduce costs; and aim to provide a safer local environment in which children can actively travel and play.

What are the implications?

The small number of sound evaluations found means that conclusions about effectiveness can only be tentative. It is not yet clear whether these types of interventions will always result in positive behavioural changes, which components are essential for success, or the extent to which they are appropriate for children in a UK context.  More research is needed.

How did we get these results?

Five outcome evaluations were synthesised, all undertaken in the USA, and five studies of children's views.

This summary was prepared by the EPPI Centre

This report should be cited as: Brunton G, Harden A, Rees R, Kavanagh J, Oliver S, Oakley A (2003) Children and physical activity: a systematic review of barriers and facilitators. London: EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

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