Young children never sit still - don't they?

23 February 2011

Longer periods of time spent in sedentary behaviour have been linked with a number of health concerns, says CPAN's Trina Hinkley

By Trina Hinkley from the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutritional Research

Sedentary behaviours include watching television, playing electronic games, and reading. Longer periods of time spent in sedentary behaviour have been linked with a number of health concerns, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature mortality. Preschool-aged children (three to five years old) spend a large amount of their day being sedentary,and this may have implications for their health during childhood or in later life. For instance, one in every five preschool children in Australia is now overweight or obese. To help reduce the amount of time preschool children spend being sedentary, it is important to understand the influences on those behaviours.

A search of the literature was undertaken to identify the potential influences that had previously been explored. Twenty-nine studies were identified. From those studies, a total of 63 possible influences had been investigated. The possible influences covered child biological (age, sex, weight status) and demographic (parent education, marital status) factors, child behaviours (time outside, dietary consumption), social and cultural factors (TV viewing rules, parent encouragement/discouragement for physical activity), home environment factors (TV in child’s bedroom, neighbourhood safety) and preschool or childcare centre factors (preschool quality, active opportunities at the preschool). No studies had investigated child psychological, emotional or cognitive influences on the child’s sedentary behaviour. Sedentary behaviours investigated included overall time in low levels of movement, TV viewing time, DVD/video viewing time, electronic game and computer use. Only one study investigated possible influences on reading.

Overall, boys and girls watched about the same amount of TV, but the association of sex on the child’s overall sedentary behaviour (determined by low levels of movement) was inconclusive, with some studies reporting no association and others reporting that girls were more sedentary than boys. Similarly, associations between TV viewing time and child’s age, weight status, parents’ education and ethnicity were largely inconclusive due to contradictory findings between studies. For instance, six studies investigated associations between child’s age and TV viewing time. Three of those studies found that older children watched more TV; one study found that older children watched less TV; and the other two studies found that age made no difference to the amount of TV a child watched.

The review failed to draw conclusive findings about potential influences on preschool children’s sedentary behaviour, largely due to the limited number of studies investigating the different influences.  Importantly, most of the research to date has focused on sedentary behaviours which involved screen-based activities, such as TV viewing and electronic game use. A greater understanding of ’positive’ sedentary behaviours, such as reading, may be important to identify influences which could be used to increase healthy behaviours.

Further research is required to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the influences on preschool children’s sedentary behaviours to better inform the development of programs which can guide preschool children to develop and maintain healthy behaviours.


1. Dunstan DW, Salmon J, Owen N, Armstrong T, Zimmet PZ, Welborn TA, et al. Associations of TV viewing and physical activity with the metabolic syndrome in Australian adults. Diabetologia. 2005;48(11):2254-61.

2. Cardon GM, De Bourdeaudhuij IM. Are preschool children active enough? Objectively measured physical activity levels. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2008 Sep;79(3):326-32.

3. Wake M, Hardy P, Canterford L, Sawyer M, Carlin JB. Overweight, obesity and girth of Australian preschoolers: Prevalence and socio-economic correlates. Int J Obes. 2007 2007/07//;31(7):1044-51.


Hinkley T, Salmon J, Okely AD, Trost SG. Correlates of sedentary behaviours in preschool children: a review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2010; 7:66.

Funding acknowledgement

Australian Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing for funding of the scientific background report that informed this review.  Professor Jo Salmon is funded by a National Heart Foundation of Australia and sanofi-aventis Career Development Award.

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