Physical activity in early childhood: a five-year longitudinal analysis of patterns and correlates

Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2022 Apr 20;19(1):47. doi: 10.1186/s12966-022-01289-x.


Background: Knowledge on longitudinal patterns and related factors of young children's physical activity (PA) is still scarce. Therefore, the aim of this study was to examine patterns and changes of accelerometer-measured PA over time in two to six-year-old children. Furthermore, the aim was to investigate if parental PA, socioeconomic status, sex, weight status, and motor skills are related to child PA over time, using prospective cohort data from a clustered randomized controlled trial.

Methods: One hundred and six children (52% girls) and their parents had PA measured yearly from age two to six with an Actigraph GT3X. The actigraph was worn on the non-dominant wrist for one week; anthropometric data and motor skills, as well as background information, was collected simultaneously. The outcome was counts per minute from the vector magnitude, and linear mixed-effect models were used to answer the research questions.

Results: Among the children, accelerometer-measured PA increased on average by 11% per year from two years of age (mean 3170 cpm (3007-3334 95% CI)) onwards to six years of age (mean 4369 cpm (4207-4533 95% CI)). From three years of age, children were more active on weekdays than on weekend days. The rate of difference varied across low, medium, and highly active children (based on tertiles). No significant differences in weekdays/weekend PA among the lowest active children was found. Despite this, they were still significantly less active on weekend days than the most active children. Maternal, but not paternal PA was found to be significantly positively related to child PA over time, with a medium to large effect size. But no significant relationships were found between child PA and sex, weight status, or socioeconomic status.

Conclusions: PA increased on average with 11% per year, similarly for boys and girls. From three years of age children were more active during weekdays than weekend days. These results indicate that child PA benefits from active stimulation by parents and care takers already from early ages. It is important to identify attributes of possible intervention designs for weekend days for families with young children as well as characterize the least active children.

Trial registration: Early STOPP was prospectively registered in the clinical trials registry: , ID NCT01198847.

Keywords: Accelerometer; Childhood obesity; Early STOPP; Toddler.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Accelerometry*
  • Anthropometry
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Parents
  • Prospective Studies

Associated data