Research: School holidays driving health inequalities

New research from ukactive indicates that school summer holidays are opening up a class divide between the fitness levels of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers due to a lack of affordable physical activity offerings.

The findings, which were recently presented at the annual Congress of the European College of Sport Science (ECSS) in Germany, show how the poorest 25% of primary schoolchildren experience a drop in their fitness levels 18 times greater than the richest 25% over the school summer holiday.

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

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


The research – which 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 – was the first study of its kind to measure fitness levels both before and after the summer holidays.

The fitness levels of the children from disadvantaged backgrounds 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.

The first tranche of research – released last year – showed how fitness levels steadily improve throughout the school year but these gains were all but wiped out due to ‘lazy summer holidays’, when activity levels plummet.

The latest findings, which are currently in peer review, highlight the ‘dramatic’ impact of deprivation on primary schoolchildren’s fitness levels, prompting the researchers to call for a major overhaul of activity funding to curtail these health inequalities.


They say the UK government’s promised £415million 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.

Dr Steven Mann, ukactive Research Director and lead author said: “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.

“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.

“Money from the £415m Sugar Levy should be used beyond the school gates to plug these gaps in provision and ensure all children can access physical activity and pick up vital healthy habits from an early age.


“Being inactive as a child sets a dangerous precedent on a number of levels. As well as being linked to impaired physical development, shorter attention span and lower grades, an inactive childhood means that person faces much higher risk of deadly diseases such as heart disease, cancer and type-II diabetes in later life.”

Chief Executive of Premier Sport, David Batch said: “Inactivity and sedentary behaviour is one of the biggest challenges facing young people today. This research not only highlights the significant gaps between deprived and affluent areas, but more importantly reaffirms the need for data-driven decisions.

“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.”

As a result of the findings, ukactive Kids – the not-for-profit’s dedicated children’s arm – is working to embed greater levels of activity throughout the school day and at home to unlock the myriad physical, mental and social benefits that structured physical literacy sessions can have on a child’s development.


ukactive Kids will kick-start this project with a major nationwide mass workout as part of National Fitness Day on September 27. The ‘10 at 10’ project will see 10,000 schools across the country take part in 10-minute bursts of activity at 10am in playgrounds, classrooms, school halls and open spaces, with the aim that these sessions become a mainstay of the school day and can be replicated at home during school holidays.

ukactive Board Member Adrian Packer CBE, chief executive of CORE Education Trust, said: “We all want our children to lead happy and healthy lives in which they can flourish and thrive, but this can only be achieved with an urgent rethink of our approach to getting children active.

“This goal cannot be achieved by working in silos. We need a whole-community approach to instilling physical activity as a daily habit and initiatives such as 10 at 10 can be a great catalyst for setting this into motion and providing the tools for children to carry physical activity into all aspects of their lives.”

Visit the ukactive website or follow @_ukactive on Twitter.


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