Timo Jaakkola is currently studying children’s fitness in Finland. He says children move less and less on a daily basis and this decrease in everyday activity has a detrimental effect on children’s basis motor skills. City of Turku physiotherapist Yasmin Akbulat agrees.
“The development of overall basic motor skills is not at the same level it used to be. For example, skipping rope has become much too difficult for many children,” says Akbulat, who is in charge of the city’s school-age sports services.
In addition to her day job, Akbulat works as a ballet and gymnastics instructor. She sees a clear lack of skills among the children in her gymnastics groups.
“Jumping rope is a concrete example of children’s basic motor skills. It requires fitness, a little strength and some amount of coordination. If children that are already engaged in a sports hobby - and therefore have already shown an interest in exercise - can’t do it, it provides a pretty good picture of children’s deteriorating physical state in general. It is a matter that should definitely be addressed,” says Akbulat.
No daily exercise for kids
Studies on the decades-long impairment of children’s motor skills have been inconclusive, as no systematic long-term follow-up data has been available. So far, scientists have only been able to come up with careful conclusions and potential cause-and-effect relationships.
University of Jyväskylä professor Timo Jaakkola, who has earned a PhD in Sport and Health Sciences, says one reason could be a change in the amount of physical activity and the fitness culture.
“Children and young people move far less today than they did in the past. This is in contrast to the fact that record numbers of kids now participate in club sports.”
Parents are often fooled into thinking that children in a sports club get enough exercise, but Jaakkola warns that coached practices sessions a few times a week are nowhere near enough activity for a growing child.
“Primary school children should move a minimum of two hours a day and young people in secondary school should get at least one and a half hours of daily exercise. Two hours sounds like a lot, but it can be broken down into 10 minute increments,” says Jaakkola.
“Everything starts with low-power exercise, or everyday physical activity. Do kids get from place to place by using their muscles or are they given a ride in the car. Organised sports are the cherry on the top of the cake of daily activity.”
Active children are more proficient in general
Jaakkola has studied children’s motor development and its impact on academic performance at the University of Jyväskylä. In the jump rope test, children are asked to jump 15 seconds on one leg and then switch to the other leg without stopping. After 30 seconds, the number of total jumps is calculated.
“A test like this correlates very well with the child’s grades at school, or school performance. Skipping rope requires some of the same elements that are required in school’s theoretical subjects. The processes in the central nervous system are the same.”
“An active child does better in school: this has been observed in countless international standardized cognitive studies.”
Exercise habits are learned early in life. At three years of age, children begin to adapt the lifestyle they have learned from their environment.
“The threat is that we are now seeing a growing number of people who are not learning a sufficiently physically active lifestyle. This causes chronic illness later in life. We already know that type II diabetes is proliferating and its onset is occurring at a younger age,” says Jaakkola.
Overprotection sucks the joy out of being active
Both Akbulat and Jaakkola agree that the main reason for children’s immobility today is the increase in screen time.
"Modern technology is easy to use and available everywhere. Phones, computers and tablets abound. Using technology has replaced playing outdoors,” says Akbulat.
Families are entrusted with supervising their children’s leisure time activity, but sometimes parents protect their offspring unduly.
“Some families prohibit their kids from climbing on things or balancing on a railing. Taking too good care of a child has an effect on the child’s motor skills development. Children often know their own limits.”
Akbulat says that in recent years, rumours circulated that there was no recommended screen time limit for children any longer.
“This is absolutely false. It gives the impression that it doesn’t matter how much TV a child watches. Screen time should never exceed two hours per day.”