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SA kids not on the ball

- Wits Communications

Wits researchers and their peers have awarded South African children a C-grade on the Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card for physical activity levels.

Dr Rebecca Meiring, lead researcher in exercise physiology at the Movement Physiology Research Laboratory in the School of Physiology at Wits, says: “Researchers from institutions across South Africa got together to research overall physical activity in children in South Africa. Unfortunately, kids in South Africa scored a C in the Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card, meaning that only about half of children in South Africa get enough exercise.”

The paper, “Results from South Africa’s 2016 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth” was published in the Human Kinetics Journals.

Wits researchers and their peers have awarded South African children a C-grade on the Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card for physical activity levels.

Globally fewer than 20 percent of children and youth meet recommendations for physical activity. For the first time in history there are now more children who are overweight and obese compared with those who are under-nourished or stunted.

The South African Medical Research Council indicates that 40% of adult deaths in SA result from chronic lifestyle diseases with direct links to lack of regular aerobic exercise. However, less is known about the physical activity of children.

Researchers in Wits’ new Movement Physiology Research Laboratory (which incorporates the Exercise Physiology Laboratory and the Biomechanics Laboratory), in collaboration with the Centre for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, are focusing on the dynamics of physical activity in the young and old.

“There is still a lot that is unknown about the activity level of children across all backgrounds, so the best way to inform policy-makers is to fill these knowledge gaps by conducting research in these areas. This is how policy-makers can be better informed to make changes at grassroots level. We really need special efforts – not  just from  researchers in the area of physical activity, but also from teachers, parents, coaches, all the way to policy-makers – to try and improve lifestyles and health in South Africa,” says Meiring.

Dr Estelle Watson, a biokinetics researcher at the Centre, says: “The research also indicates less-than-optimal intervention programmes. Less than half of SA children and youth take part in organised sporting activities. Even more concerning is the fact that there is a lower participation rate in girls.” 

The Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card 

The Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card (HAKSA) 2016 reflects the best available scientific evidence from the last five years concerning physical activity and healthy eating in South African children and youth. It builds on the evidence base gathered for the previous report cards in 2007, 2010, and 2014. The report looks beyond whether or not South Africa’s children and youth are meeting recommendations, and attempts to unpack factors that contribute to making healthy choices easier, or those that stand in the way. 

HAKSA 2016 physical activity indicators 

  • From evidence presented in the 2014 report card physical activity appeared to improve overall. Girls, however, tend to take part in less physical activity compared with boys.
  • Physical fitness and motor proficiency, organised sport participation, and the role of school sport are areas that have not improved or declined since the last report, suggesting that engagement in these areas is not being promoted effectively.
  • Sedentary behaviour (time spent sitting or lying) among South African children and youth is high (more than 2 hours of screen time per day) and no studies have indicated an improvement since 2014. The area of sedentary behaviour is understudied in South African populations.
  • Peer and family support for physical activity participation and the role of the community and the built environment remain areas which lack the drive to promote physical activity. There is a need for community-based strategies, including maintaining existing physical activity infrastructure to enable children to increase physical activity levels.
  • Government engagement and investment in children’s physical activity remains a focus for the Department of Basic Education although compliance to government programmes remains poor. There is a disconnect between the promotion and the uptake of physical activity programmes. 

HAKSA 2016 nutrition indicators 

  • Overweight and obesity in children and adolescents in South Africa is high. The prevalence of obesity is in the region of 15 – 30% (boys and girls and children and adolescents combined). The levels are similar to those seen in American children.
  • The undernutrition rate is slowly declining. However, it remains high in boys and in children from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • There is limited evidence available about fruit and vegetable intake, snacking behaviours (including sugar intakes) and fast food intake. However, the limited studies available suggest that South African children perform poorly in these areas.
  • There is also limited evidence that programmes/avenues available to support healthy eating are actually improving children and adolescent nutrition. These programmes include the National School Nutrition Programme, school vegetable gardens, school tuck shops, and the role of advertising and media.

A problem with healthy eating, it seems, is that there is still a certain percentage of the population with inadequate access to food, juxtaposed with the high prevalence of obesity in children. This area warrants further research.

The 2016 report concludes that, unfortunately, not much has changed since the 2014 report. Although there are promising initiatives being implemented in the private and public sectors uptake of these initiatives remains low. Only if engagement occurs at all levels can we begin to increase physical activity and support healthy eating in South African children.

More about the Wits Movement Physiology Research Laboratory (MPRL)

The MPRL consists of a vibrant and dynamic research team. We believe that exercise and physical activity play an essential role in treating, and even preventing, chronic diseases of lifestyle such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis. We are also interested in gaining knowledge about the diseases which limit exercise and movement. As such, our research focuses on exercise and physical activity as a lifestyle tool to improve the health of South Africans, both young and old.

The MPRL consists of the Exercise Physiology Lab and the Biomechanics Lab. The key research areas are: 

  • Physical Activity and Health
  • Sports Performance
  • Neuro-cognitive Motor Physiology.

There are currently 3 permanent full-time staff members in the lab undertaking each of the three research areas.