Digital Intervention Strategies for Increasing Physical Activity Among Preschoolers: Systematic Review

J Med Internet Res. 2022 Jan 11;24(1):e28230. doi: 10.2196/28230.


Background: Digital interventions are increasingly used to improve health behaviors. Improved access and lower costs (relative to in-person interventions) make such interventions appealing. Specifically, digital platforms may be a promising approach for increasing physical activity (PA) in young children.

Objective: The goal of this systematic review was three-pronged: (1) to determine the quality of studies using digital PA intervention strategies with preschool-aged children (ie, 3 to 5 years old); (2) to assess the efficacy of digital interventions and approaches designed to improve PA in preschool-aged children; and (3) to examine theoretical application and implementation outcomes with current approaches to digital PA interventions.

Methods: This review identified and summarized studies on digitally supported interventions for promoting PA in preschool-aged children. We generated 3 lists of relevant search terms that included technology-related terms, PA-related terms, and weight-related terms. The search included Ovid MEDLINE(R) and Epub Ahead of Print, In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations, and Daily, Ovid EMBASE, Ovid Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Ovid Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, and Scopus. Study selection was led by a single author and verified by a second; the same 2 authors assessed study quality using a standardized tool, and 3 authors completed data extraction on PA outcomes, theory application, and implementation outcomes.

Results: In total, 601 studies were identified; 8 met the inclusion criteria. For study quality, only 2 studies received an overall rating of strong quality and low risk of bias. All but 1 study had a small sample size (<100). Positive and significant changes in child PA outcomes were reported in only 2 studies with weak overall quality, both of which used child-directed approaches. In total, 5 studies applied a behavioral theory for designing the intervention; no patterns of effectiveness were identified based on the application of theory. Finally, no studies reported on the implementation outcomes of adoption, cost, penetration, or sustainability; 1 study did not assess any implementation outcomes, and no single study reported on more than 2 implementation outcomes. Studies measured the implementation outcome of acceptability most frequently (n=4), and researchers assessed fidelity in 3 studies.

Conclusions: The interventions with a significant effect on PA used child-centered activities; parent-directed digital interventions alone were ineffective for improving PA. Future research with rigorous designs, monitoring of implementation outcomes, and testing of the contributions of digital components will advance understanding of the effectiveness of digital interventions for increasing PA in children.

Keywords: digital; intervention; physical activity; preschool children; technology.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Child, Preschool
  • Exercise
  • Health Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Parents*