Background: Rising levels of childhood obesity have led to an increasing number of Government sponsored initiatives attempting to stem the problem. Much of the focus to date has been on physical activity and out-of-school activity in particular. There is an assumption that children from low-income families suffer most where there is a lack of structured physical education in school. Accordingly, provision of additional facilities for sport and other forms of active recreation tend to target areas of socio-economic deprivation.
Aim: We have assessed the relationship between parental income, the use of out-of-school sports facilities and the overall physical activity of young children across a wide socio-economic range.
Methods: Total weekly physical activity was measured, objectively, over 7 days both at 7 years and 8 years in a healthy cohort of 121 boys and 93 girls using actigraph accelerometers. Questionnaires were used to establish parental income and parents reported the child's weekly use of out-of-school facilities for structured physical activity.
Results: Children from low-income families attended significantly fewer sessions of structured out-of-school activities than those from wealthier families (r = 0.39), with a clear dose-response relationship across income groups. Nevertheless, total physical activity, measured objectively over seven continuous days, showed no relationship between parental income and the mean activity level of the children (r = -0.08). Nor did we find a relationship between parental income and time spent in higher intensity activity (r = -0.04).
Conclusion: Social inequality appears to have little impact on physical activity in young children. Those from poorer families make less use of facilities for structured activity out-of-school but they nevertheless record the same overall level of activity as others. What they lack in opportunity they appear to make up in the form of unstructured exercise. Improving provision for sport may not lead to the expected rise in activity levels in young children.