Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

We Built It: They Didn’t Come

By Tim Olds

A global report gives a gold medal to Australia’s community sporting facilities yet finds that our kids are the second-least active in the world.

It’s “active break” time, and up on the stage a dance instructor is telling us to move in our own “bubble of awesomeness” as conference delegates at the Global Summit on the Physical Activity of Children in Toronto make some rather awkward and even absurd attempts at dance moves. I can’t seem to locate my own bubble, so I thought I’d nick out and update you on the first Global Report Card on the Physical Activity of Kids (http://tinyurl.com/n9y7xes).

The probability of Australian kids coming out on top of the world league in physical activity was only slightly greater than the likelihood of Australia winning the World Cup, and they haven’t disappointed. They didn’t come last of the 15 countries represented – they came second last. Thank God for Scotland.

Only 19% of Australian school-aged kids meet our government guidelines of 60 minutes of physical activity each day, and only about 30% meet the screen guidelines of no more than 2 hours per day in front of the variously sized idiot boxes. The pain is all the more acute because New Zealand, along with Mozambique, leads the world in physical activity, while Ghana and Kenya are the least sedentary countries.

One of the striking findings from this exercise is the inverse relationship between infrastructure – the availability of parks, tennis courts, school ovals, playing fields, basketball courts, cycleways and the like – and physical activity. The countries with the best infrastructure (Australia won gold in the built environment category, and bronze in the school environment category) have the least active kids while Mozambique, which scored a Fail grade on the built environment, topped the physical activity category. In the rich countries, we built it but they didn’t come.

Even when we look within countries we find the same relationship. One study presented at the Toronto summit by Dr Lucy Lewis of The University of South Australia audited 26 schools in Adelaide for their physical activity facilities and policies – from the availability of bike racks to playing fields, available sports and minutes of prescribed PE. The kids’ physical activity was monitored 24 hours per day for a week using wearable accelerometers.

Lewis found no relationship between infrastructure and physical activity – kids in schools with poor facilities were just as active as kids in schools with good facilities, both inside and outside of school hours. Just as surprisingly, the socioeconomic status of the school had no relationship with facilities – both rich and poor schools had equally good facilities and policies.

The really surprising bit about this study was that in spite of all this – no relationship between socioeconomic status and facilities, or between facilities and physical activity – there was still a strong relationship between socioeconomic status and physical activity. Kids from poorer families were less active both in and out of school.

What are we to make of all this? That facilities just don’t matter, and that we certainly didn’t build the education revolution as far as physical activity is concerned? It’s probably not as simple as that.

In the Australian context, part of the lack of relationship between facilities and physical activity may have to do with the very small variability in facilities — all the schools were very well endowed, so there was probably a ceiling effect. Even so, there still remains a socioeconomic gradient in physical activity.

Clearly, if we want all our kids to have equal activity opportunities, it means more than just building basketball courts and playing fields. Those rich schools (or rich families) must have a culture of physical activity. Perhaps these kids play more at recess or at lunch time, or their schools use more “active curriculum” activities (that is, building activity into other curriculum subjects, such as going on nature walks for science), or they have active lesson breaks.

From the international perspective, kids’ physical activity levels in Nairobi or Maputo are doubtless higher because they have no choice — they just have to walk (or run) to school or they won’t get there at all. These kids are also likely to work on the farm, or do more chores around the house. So it may be that physical activity facilities are stopping us from falling even further behind. We’re never going to go back to subsistence farming in Australia, or even to the halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s. When families only had one car, and even that was a Vauxhall Viva. When kids cycled to school on dragster bicycles. When it was safe to walk to the park without fear of being molested or crushed by a semi-trailer.

So we need to fashion new spaces for physical activity inside the technological environment we have created. And that’s happening: with exergaming (like Wii), gymnasia or roaming around shopping malls, which seems to be the only exercise my 15-year old gets (but she certainly gets a lot of it).

In short, we need to create more “bubbles of awesomeness”.

Professor Tim Olds leads the Health and Use of Time Group at the Sansom Institute for Health Research, University of South Australia.