Physical activity in preschoolers: understanding prevalence and measurement issues

Sports Med. 2007;37(12):1045-70. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200737120-00004.


Accurate physical activity quantification in preschoolers is essential to establish physical activity prevalence, dose-response relationships between activity and health outcomes, and intervention effectiveness. To date, best practice approaches for physical activity measurement in preschool-aged children have been relatively understudied. This article provides a review of physical activity measurement tools for preschoolers, an overview of measurement of preschoolers' physical activity, and directions for further research. Electronic and manual literature searches were used to identify 49 studies that measured young children's physical activity, and 32 studies that assessed the validity and/or reliability of physical activity measures with preschool-aged children. While no prevalence data exist, measurement studies indicate that preschool children exhibit low levels of vigorous activity and high levels of inactivity, boys are more active than girls, and activity patterns tend to be sporadic and omnidirectional. As such, measures capable of capturing differing activity intensities in very short timeframes and over multiple planes are likely to have the most utility with this population. Accelerometers are well suited for this purpose, and a number of models have been used to objectively quantify preschoolers' physical activity. Only one model of pedometer has been investigated for validity with preschool-aged children, showing equivocal results. Direct observation of physical activity can provide detailed contextual information on preschoolers' physical activity, but is subjective and impractical for understanding daily physical activity. Proxy-report questionnaires are unlikely to be useful for determining actual physical activity levels of young children, and instead may be useful for identifying potential correlates of activity. Establishing validity is challenging due to the absence of a precise physical activity measure, or 'criterion', for young children. Both energy expenditure (EE) and direct observation have been considered criterion measures in the literature; however, EE is influenced by multiple variables, so its use as a physical activity 'criterion' is not ideal. Also, direct observation is inherently subjective, and coding protocols may result in failure to capture intermittent activity, thereby limiting its utility as a physical activity criterion. Accordingly, these issues must be taken into account where EE or direct observation are used to validate physical activity instruments. A combination of objective monitoring and direct observation may provide the best standard for the assessment of physical activity measurement tools. Ideally, the convergent validity of various physical activity tools should be investigated to determine the level of agreement between currently available measures. The correlational approaches commonly employed in the assessment of physical activity measures do not reveal this relationship, and can conceal potential bias of either measure.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child, Preschool
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology
  • Epidemiologic Methods*
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male