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Wednesday, 25 July, 2001, 23:46 GMT 00:46 UK
Girls less sporty 'from early age'
Exercise problems may start from the early years
Girls are much less physically active than boys from a very early age, research suggests.

Research has suggested that teenage girls are less likely to take vigorous exercise than their male counterparts.

But the problem starts when girls are much younger, according to a new study that found girls are almost half as physically active as boys well before they reach their teens.

The results raise concerns because inactivity in childhood can influence activity patterns as an adult, and that inactive children risk health problems in later life, the report's authors say.

Researchers studied the exercise habits of children from 37 primary schools in Dublin.

The parents of 786 children - aged seven to nine - completed a modified version of a questionnaire designed to measure levels of physical activity among adolescents.

There is evidence that if two babies are crawling on the floor, the girl baby is much more likely to be picked up than the boy baby

Prof Neil Armstrong
Around one in 10 of the children had a condition such as asthma which might have made physical activity more difficult.

Just under four out of 10 children vigorously exercised for 20 minutes three or more times a week - the minimum amount recommended for good health.

Many girls are discouraged from cycling
Boys outnumbered girls by almost two to one in this category.

Irrespective of gender, over 40% of the children failed to engage in even moderate levels of physical activity, such as walking and cycling.

And over three quarters of the children spent at least two hours in front of a TV or computer screen every day, whatever their social and economic background.

But children from more disadvantaged backgrounds expended significantly more physical energy than children from more privileged backgrounds.

Lead researcher Juliette Hussey, of St James' Hospital, Dublin, said: "We do not know the health implications that low levels of activity have at this age but in activity patterns do tend to track from childhood to adulthood where inactivity is a risk factor for obesity, heart disease and non-insulin dependent diabetes."

Parents 'over-protective'

Professor Neil Armstrong, director of the Children's Health and Exercise Research Centre at Exeter University, told BBC News Online that there was evidence that girls were discouraged from taking exercise from the very beginnings of their life onwards.

He said: "There is evidence that if two babies are crawling on the floor, the girl baby is much more likely to be picked up than the boy baby."

Professor Armstrong said many girls were put off physical activity by seemingly trivial things such as a dislike of getting hot and sweaty, and of gym kit.

They also tended to receive less encouragement than boys, and some parents adopted an over-protective attitude, for instance not letting their daughters ride their bicycles in public areas.

He said it was down to schools to encourage physical activity that was enjoyable for all young people.

It was also important that parents, particularly mothers, provided a good role model.

"It is no good a mother saying when 'I was your age I used to play netball and hockey', she has to get a good example now, for instance using the stairs, rather than an escalator," Prof Armstrong added.

The research is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The BBC's Neil Bennett
"Inactive children are far more likely to become inactive and unhealthy adults"
See also:

21 May 01 | Health
Children 'breakfast on junk food'
05 Jan 01 | Health
Childhood obesity soars in UK
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