Skip to content

Finland rates poorly in world comparison of children’s physical activity

A comparison of children’s physical activity in 38 countries found that less than half of Finnish school children move as much as national guideline recommendations say they should.

Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

Slovenia, Denmark and the Netherlands gained top scores in an international comparison of physical activity among children and youth. Report cards for each of the 38 participating countries were presented at the International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health in Bangkok, Thailand on November 16.

The Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance analyzed the physical activity of children and youth according to nine indicators: overall physical activity, organized sport participation, active play, active transportation, sedentary behaviour, family and peers, school, community and the built environment, and government strategies and investments.

The evaluation results were announced among international research reports that say the children today live shorter lives with more illnesses than the generation before them.

In top-ranking Slovenia, schools have made an effort to increase the amount of physical activity by giving pupils the option of a daily 90-minute PE course. But even there, physical activity outside of school is limited. In the second-place Netherlands, excellent biking paths contribute to high levels of youth activity.

Finland in the middle

Finland places in the middle of the evaluation, with the Alliance awarding Finnish youth a grade of D, on a scale of A to F.

Based on self-reports in the spring of 2016, 32 percent of 9-15-year-old children (28 percent of girls and 37 percent of boys) engage in at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.

Finland’s report card determines that the amount of autonomous activity among children should be increased, while the time they spend sitting should be reduced.

“Over the last twenty years, children’s physical endurance has deteriorated. Children and youth are also increasingly overweight. These problems are a global phenomenon; there is just too little overall activity,” said Tuija Tammelin of the LIKES Research Centre for Physical Activity and Health in Finland, which coordinated the compilation process. 

A growing trend in western countries appears to be that children take part in organised sports, but playing outside or activities outside of the obligatory practices are at a minimum. Most kids tend to stay inside.

In Finland, about half of primary school children move enough to meet national guidelines. These say that 7-18 year olds should be physically active for at least one to two hours a day, in a variety of ways suitable for each age group. Among secondary school pupils, however, the numbers fall to just one in five.

For children under 8, the Finnish recommendation is three hours of activity a day.

Government backing important

One of Finland’s strengths in the evaluation was the amount of state support for children’s movement. Day cares centres, schools and sports groups actively encourage physical activity. The country also has plenty of gyms and sports centres, and it is possible to walk or bike to most areas.

The Finnish Government Programme encourages comprehensive school pupils to engage in one hour of physical activity a day, and municipalities will be granted a total of 21 million euros in 2016–2018 to fund the Finnish Schools on the Move programme to promote it.

Many countries with a low standard of living did better in the assessment than rich countries. For example in Zimbabwe, children still tend to move more every day, even though there are fewer sports venues or clubs. The report card shows, however, that children of wealthier families move less in Zimbabwe, too.