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What does sedentary behaviour do to children?

Recent studies have shown a negative association between sedentary behaviours, and health and developmental outcomes in children.
Image of children's legs resting on a lounge next to a bowl of popcorm in front of a television

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 young people.

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 fat, 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 is also an important predictor of obesity in adulthood. For these reasons, encouraging physical activity and limiting long periods of sedentary time are important parts of promoting a healthy lifestyle in children.

Productive and non-productive sedentary behaviours

It is not always possible to eliminate or even decrease sedentary time. So 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 and looking at books, or quiet play, such as art & 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.

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Preventing Childhood Obesity: an Early Start to Healthy Living

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