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FAU sport scientists take stock and make recommendations for promoting physical activity in children and adolescents

The numbers are alarming. Children and young people are not getting nearly enough exercise. Sport scientists at the WHO Collaborating Center for Physical Activity and Public Health at FAU have now taken stock of the situation and drafted a document on “Promoting physical activity in children and adolescents in Germany” on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Health (BMG) and based on national and international recommendations.

According to the findings of the World Health Organization (WHO), babies and toddlers should have as much physical activity as possible, pre-school children should be physically active for at least 180 minutes a day, and school children and adolescents should have at least 60 minutes physical activity per day. National studies have shown that fewer than 50 percent of children aged four to five get enough exercise, and this decreases successively with age. Among 11 to 17 year olds, fewer than 20 percent partake in sufficient physical activity, and girls tend to be even less active than boys.

Lack of physical activity on the rise

In this context, the BMG commissioned the WHO Collaborating Center for Physical Activity and Public Health at FAU with gathering information that can be used as the basis for developing political measures aimed at counteracting the lack of physical activity. The Department for Sport Science and Sport has been a WHO Collaborating Center since 2014. The partnership was extended for another four years in March this year. Since 2020, the BMG has provided funding for the activities of the WHO Collaborating Center for Physical Activity and Public Health with an annual financial subsidy.

The COVID-19 pandemic with its contact restrictions and closures of sports grounds, daycare centers and schools had a critical impact on the lack of physical activity. “Taking stock of the situation as it stands at present has given us a compact overview of the current situation regarding promoting physical activity in children and adolescents in Germany, tailored to meet the needs of the Federal Ministry of Health and directed at the decision-makers in politics and society,” explains Prof. Dr. Klaus Pfeifer, head of Physical Activity and Health at the Department of Sport Science and Sport at FAU.

“The coronavirus pandemic had a dramatic impact on the exercise habits of children and adolescents in Germany. That explains why it is now so important that we develop a clear political strategy based on scientific findings,” Pfeifer continues.

Extensive catalog of recommendations

The document includes a comprehensive catalog of recommendations for policy actions, educational institutions and other stakeholders in the physical activity sector, building on various initiatives on a national and international level as well as the WHO’s Global Action Plan on Physical Activity. The recommendations include raising awareness among parents to be and families with young children of the importance of physical activity, launching programs for families aimed at encouraging active play and actively involving parents in encouraging their children to partake in more physical activity.

The researchers recommend implementing national programs promoting physical activity for children of pre-school and daycare age, and stress the importance of training in this area for daycare staff and teachers of children in this age group.

The researchers also recommend that children should be encouraged to walk to school, and special bicycle and road safety training should be offered. Urban design is another aspect that ought to be considered. Towns and cities should offer safe travel routes and ensure that shops, schools, services, parks, and leisure facilities are located near residential areas and that good sidewalks and cycle paths are provided.

Taking existing measures to the next level

Many places have already established good practices concerning physical activity. Many institutions already offer organized hiking days, gymnastics for parents and young children, days out in the forest or daily outdoor play as part of their regular routine. After taking stock of the current situation, however, the researchers recommend extending the scope and effectiveness of these measures for promoting physical activity. They also stress the importance of policy actions aimed at systematically monitoring activities for promoting physical activity, both at a national level as well as in the various federal states and local authorities throughout Germany.

Another conclusion they came to is the importance of encouraging closer links between the relevant organizations across political levels and sectors in order to strengthen the structural basis for encouraging physical activity in Germany.

The researchers’ evaluation adds further recommendations to the existing German government’s policy actions aimed at promoting physical activity in children and adolescents. The Federal Ministry of the Interior and the BMG organized a joint physical activity summit in December 2022, and funding has been earmarked for further measures in 2023 in the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs’ “Future package for physical activity, culture and health.” Furthermore, the BMG will invite stakeholders from various political levels and sectors to a round table discussion on physical activity and health, which Prof. Dr. Pfeifer will attend in his capacity as a representative of the WHO Collaborating Center.

“I am pleased that the Federal Ministry of Health is encouraging an exchange of ideas across political sectors with this round table discussion and I am happy to contribute our wide-ranging experience. In my opinion, it is particularly important that we improve links between existing activities and exploit synergy effects, for example by creating a national center for promoting physical activity,” says Prof. Klaus Pfeifer.

The document “Promoting physical activity in children and adolescents in Germany” is available online as a PDF file (in German).

Further information

Prof. Dr. Klaus Pfeifer, PD Dr. Karim Abu-Omar, PD Dr. Peter Gelius
WHO Collaborating Center for Physical Activity and Public Health
Department of Sport Science and Sport at FAU