Most kids in child care facilities aren’t getting enough exercise, new study finds

Only 43% of programs met doctor-recommended guidelines.

ByDr. Jelissa MooYin via logo
May 20, 2022, 5:53 PM

Amid a mounting obesity epidemic among children in the United States, a new study finds that only 43% of U.S. early childhood care programs met doctor-recommended guidelines for sufficient outdoor physical activity.

About 60% of U.S. preschool-aged children attend day care centers, averaging approximately 30 hours per week while their parents go to work or school. For many children, these child-care centers become the primary source for physical activity.

In the first nation-wide study of its kind, researchers observed 227 classrooms, 96 child-care centers and 131 head start programs for physical activity. Seventy four percent met national guidance for sufficient outdoor opportunities, and 50% met the one-hour physical activity guideline. However, only 43% of facilities met both standard guidelines. Researchers suggested that weather and staff not joining in outdoor play may have played a part in decreased physical activity.

Dr. Kristen Copeland, professor of pediatrics and committee member of the American Association of Pediatrics, helped to draft the standard for sufficient physical activity. Copeland said children under six years old should "be given frequent opportunities to be physically active and that at least two of these occasions [should] be outdoors regularly. Furthermore, children should be given about one hour of physical activity time for every four hours they are in care."

Experts say habits formed while young set the stage for health outcomes later in life.

"Inadequate physical activity during early childhood has been linked to higher rates of obesity and obesity-related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease in adulthood. And those health effects, can have consequences for everything from academic performance to success in the workforce later in life," said Dr. Lauren Olsho, co-author of the study and health economics principal associate at Abt Associates, a global consulting and research firm.

For parents, choosing a child care facility that prioritizes physical activity could have long-term effects on a child’s health.

Experts say parents should ask the child- care facility about the daily physical activity schedule; make sure there are outdoor play areas; and if no playground to at least have a designated indoor play area for kids to move around.

“Physical activity is critical for the developing body and mind…[and] is associated with healthy weight gain, improved mood, attention and improved learning and academic outcomes,” said Copeland.

Dr. Jelissa MooYin is an Internal Medicine resident physician at the University of California, Riverside, and a contributing writer to the ABC News Medical Unit.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Olsho's association.