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Summer holidays driving fitness inequalities among children, ukactive research says

School summer holidays are creating a class divide between the fitness levels of deprived children and their more affluent peers thanks to a lack of affordable physical activity offerings, research from ukactive has revealed.

Study findings – which were presented at the annual Congress of the European College of Sport Science in Germany last week – show how the poorest 25 per cent of primary schoolchildren experience a drop in their fitness levels 18 times greater than the richest 25 per cent over the school summer holiday.

The authors believe the prohibitive cost of school holiday activities, such as summer camps, means many of the poorest children are left inactive, putting them at much higher risk of diseases such as heart disease, cancer and type-II diabetes in later life.

These findings form the second part of a study from ukactive and children’s activity provider Premier Sport into physical activity among eight and nine-year-olds.

The research tracked the cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) levels of more than 400 children in 13 schools across the North West of England over a 13-month period. It is the first study of its kind to measure fitness levels both before and after the summer holidays.

Fitness levels of the most deprived children fell significantly during the summer holidays compared to their more affluent peers, meaning they were able to run far shorter distances before exhaustion in September than they could in June, while the fitness levels of the most affluent group dipped slightly but were relatively unaffected.

Last year, the first part of the research showed how fitness levels steadily improve throughout the school year but these gains were all but wiped out due to ‘lazy summer holidays’.

The latest findings, which are in peer review, have prompted the researchers to call for an overhaul of activity funding.

They say the UK government’s promised £415m (US$533.2m, €466.3m) of Sugar Tax funding for school sport should be used to support out-of-term exercise sessions and in-school fitness measurement to ensure children maintain active lifestyles during the summer break.

"There's a growing class divide around fitness levels due to the summer holidays and the government must urgently address these Victorian-style health inequalities to give every child a fair chance of a healthy start in life," said Dr Steven Mann, ukactive research director and lead author of the study.

“Our research with Premier Sport suggests deprived children are being plonked in front of screens for hours on end, while their more affluent peers are able to maintain their fitness levels through summer camps and other activities.”

David Batch, Premier Sport chief executive, said: “Whilst the money from the sugar tax levy is welcomed, we need to ensure the money is used by those in most need of intervention and that its impact can be measured. To do this effectively we first need to understand where individuals are now. Then we can implement appropriate interventions, to not only maximise the benefits to participants but also ensure any investment is being well spent and has the maximum impact.”

ukactive Kids – the dedicated children’s arm of the not-for-profit organisation – is working to embed greater levels of activity throughout the school day and at home through the launch of its 10 at 10 project.

The scheme, to begin on National Fitness Day (27 September), will see 10,000 schools take part in 10-minute bursts of activity at 10am, with the aim that these sessions become part of the school day and can be replicated at home during school holidays.

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