Letting children out to play on their own could do a lot more to combat obesity, rather than structured exercise, a study shows.

Research carried out by AUT associate professor Erica Hinckson - of the university's Centre for Child Health Research and Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition - looked at the perceptions students from a low-economic neighbourhood had of active play versus structured activity.

A group of parents and children, aged 8 to 12, from a South Auckland school took part in Dr Hinckson's study, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today.

Findings showed a big gap in how students and parents viewed active play and structured exercise. The former was seen to be about having fun, while the latter was a chore.


"When it comes to combating obesity and increasing children's daily physical activity levels, active play is just as important, if not more so, than structured exercise," she said.

"The view that physical activity is something structured - in order to be beneficial - seemed to distance participants from engagement.

"There was a strong perception that physical activity was good for you rather than being fun. This perception seemed to be a barrier to children getting involved in physical activity."

Parents admitted that issues such as time, money and transport were barriers to increased physical activities for their children. Some of the key recommendations they gave were the need for more low-cost or free programmes in schools and neighbourhoods. There are currently a number of youth programmes and activities in parks around South Auckland, organised by 274 Youth Core as well as Sir John Walker's Find Your Field of Dreams initiative.

Other recommendations were car-pooling schedules, better community communication and supervised playgrounds in parks.

Dr Hinckson said: "For after-school community activity programmes to be successful, a safe neighbourhood environment in conjunction with increased community support is really important for parents."