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Private daycare kids outfitted with fitness trackers

About 3,000 daycare kids are wearing the devices. Meanwhile, officials say nearly a quarter of Finland's children are overweight.

Kids wearing activity tracker wristbands.
Daycare kids wearing activity tracker wristbands. Image: Yle/Sara Silvennoinen

It's an exciting time for many of the kids at the private daycare centre Touhula Jaani in Turku, south-west Finland. All of the five-year-olds have received their own activity tracking wristbands.

According to daycare worker Sanni Tiihonen, the bands are meant to support and monitor how much kids are active every day.

At the same time, the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) reported on Thursday that nearly one quarter of kids in Finland between the ages of two to 16 are overweight.

"We're trying to get the children to move around a bit more. They already do move around quite a lot, but this gives them a little motivation to do it," Tiihonen said.

Story continues after photo.

Two adults and a child at a daycare centre raising their arms in the air.
From left: the head of Touhula Jaani, a Turku private daycare centre, Suvi Tynjälä; Edith Lahti and child care worker Sanni Tiihonen. Image: Yle/Sara Silvennoinen

The centre in Turku is one of nearly 170 facilities around the country run by private daycare services firm Touhula. More than 3,000 children at the centres between the ages of five to seven are using the gamified trackers, according to Tiina Lämsä, the firm's pedagogical chief.

"This means for the first time we will get nationwide data on the activity levels of kids five to seven years old. That creates a unique possibility to examine and support active lifestyles of kids during early education," Lämsä stated on Touhula's website.

Gamified activities

The electronic wristbands collect data on the kids' physical activities but do not include a step counter or provide information about calories. That data is sent to a smartphone game featuring an animated, sportily-dressed character named Goey that moves around in various fantasy environments on the screen.

"The more active the child is, the further he or she gets in the game's virtual world," Tiihonen said, explaining that the game also awards virtual medals and trophies.

Edith Lahti, who attends the daycare centre in Turku, has started wearing the activity tracker, and said it is fun to watch the progress she's made in the app.

"I got it because I'm five years old," she said proudly.

femåriga Edith Lahti visar upp sitt aktivitetsarmband
Edith Lahti. Image: Yle/Sara Silvennoinen

According to the daycare centre's chief Suvi Tynjälä, her staff doesn't think the activity bands will encourage kids to move to an excessive extent, saying that she thinks it is doubtful they would create a competition because each child is playing their own personal game. She said that minimises the risk of the children comparing each others' progress in the game.

She added that the children aren't constantly thinking about the fact they're wearing them, either.

"Right now for example, we're having a calm moment as the kids are playing and painting. They're not thinking 'hey, now I should get up and move,'" she explained.

Story continues after photo.

en samsungmobil som visar en mobilapplikation som hör till aktivitetsarmbandet
The fitness trackers are linked to a smartphone game. Image: Sara Silvennoinen / Yle

Sports pedagogy professor Pasi Koski said he welcomes all new methods that encourage kids and adults to move around more

"If there's a good way to combine physical activity with a game, I welcome it," Koski added.

Nearly 2,400 children at the daycare chain's centres across the country wore the activity trackers for three months last autumn.

The collected data found that the kids were in motion for an average of roughly three hours per day, which is an hour more of activity than the recommended amount of activity for children at that age.

Nearly one-in-four kids overweight

THL reported Thursday that nearly a quarter of kids in Finland between the ages of two to 16 are overweight.

Twenty-seven percent of boys and 18 percent of girls were found to be overweight, or had a Body Mass Index (BMI) of at least 25. Meanwhile in that age group, eight percent of boys and four percent of girls were found to be obese, or had a BMI of at least 30.

There were major regional variations in the children's body weights, according to THL.

In some municipalities up 60 percent of boys and nearly 40 percent of girls were found to be overweight, while in others the figures were much lower.

THL researcher Annamari Lundqvist said there were many reasons behind the variations.

Different locations, different lifestyles

"In eastern and northern Finland, for example, students travel long distances to school and cannot walk or cycle there. Organised sports activities are not as commonly available [to kids] in some places as they are in others," she explained.

She also noted that obesity rate variations also reflect regional economic differences, saying that people in low-income areas may not be able to regularly afford to buy healthy foods.

Children's body weights have not increased overall since they were measured in 2014, but Lundqvist still said she finds the results disappointing.

"Work has been done in Finland to reduce obesity, but the figures have not fallen yet. There is a need for more investment and more extensive cooperation," she said, pointing out that people who were overweight as kids often remain overweight into adulthood.

THL collected body weight data from health care centres and school health facilities across Finland in 2014-18. However the information was not available from every municipality due to variations in patient data systems.

THL has posted an interactive map of the data here (in Finnish).

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