Image of children's legs resting on a lounge next to a bowl of popcorm in front of a television

What are the health consequences of sedentary behaviour in young children?

Recent studies have shown a negative association between sedentary behaviours, such as prolonged sitting time and screen time and several health and developmental outcomes in children and youth.

From a developmental perspective, high amounts of sedentary behaviour in the early years seems counter-intuitive to a child’s natural tendency to be active. It may reduce the amount of physical activity that can be participated in; the time that can be spent developing rudimentary and fundamental movement skills, and restrict opportunities to interact with the environment, which mainly occurs through play.

High levels of sedentary time, particularly screen time, at a young age (0-5 years) have been associated with higher body fatness, poor diet and lower self-regulation, lower levels of cognitive development, slower motor development and reduced cardiovascular health. Higher amounts of screen-based sedentary behaviour at a young age are also important predictors of overweight and obesity in adulthood. For these reasons, encouraging physical activity and limiting long periods of sedentary time are an important part of promoting a healthy lifestyle in children.

Productive and non-productive sedentary behaviours

Not all sedentary time is possible to eliminate or even decrease. When making decisions about time spent in sedentary behaviours we need to recognise which behaviours are ‘productive’ and ‘non-productive’.

Productive sedentary behaviours include all tasks and activities that are necessary for healthy growth and development such as reading, listening to stories or looking at books, or quiet play, such as art and craft activities, drawing and puzzles.

Non-productive sedentary behaviours can negatively impact on a child’s development (if they engage in them excessively) and should be limited. Examples are watching television and DVDs for leisure, playing screen games (video or computer games), or being restrained for long periods of time, in a car seat, high chair or stroller.

The evidence we currently have on the health effects of sedentary time in children aged 0 to 5 years of age mostly comes from studies on children’s screen time. This week we will focus our attention on how screen-based activities can impact on the health of young children and contribute to unhealthy weight gain.

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This article is from the free online course:

Preventing Childhood Obesity: an Early Start to Healthy Living

University of Wollongong