Keeping preschoolers moving could be key to reducing obesity, new research has found.
A University of Otago study just published in the International Journal of Obesity tracked the physical activity and sedentary behaviour of children between the ages of 1 and 5 to analyse how that related to body size and weight.
The world-first research found that children who had lower levels of activity had higher levels of excess body fat at age 5 and those with consistently high levels of activity tended to have less excess body fat.
Although activity related to excess body fat, it seemed to have no bearing on waist circumference or BMI.
Three hours a day of light-to-vigorous activity was recommended but the study found a large proportion of young children maintained a highly sedentary pattern.
Lead author Dr Kim Meredith-Jones, of the Dunedin School of Medicine, said the research was significant because more than 40 million children under 5 were classified as overweight or obese worldwide but little was known about preschoolers' physical activity habits or the health impact.
"Considering many children who are overweight at a young age continue to remain overweight as they get older, early detection and intervention is important," she said.
She said the research showed how important it was to encourage and maintain physical activity in preschoolers because excess weight gain before age 5 put the person at greater risk of being overweight as an adult.
The patterns of physical activity and sedentary behaviour established as a preschooler may also flow into later years of childhood and result in further weight gain, Meredith-Jones said.
Environmental issues that contributed to sedentary behaviour needed to be addressed so healthy habits could be formed early, she said.
"These include access to outdoor play areas and resources in the community that encourage activity such as parks, playgrounds and swimming pools," she said.
"Screen time needs to be reduced in favour of other developmentally appropriate activities, as well as encouraging a transition from sedentary behaviour to light behaviour such as standing rather than sitting."
Next, the researchers planned to look at more patterns of physical and sedentary activity in the age group, including the proportion of kids who did and did not meet physical activity, sedentary and sleep guidelines across the five-year period.
Family trips keep kids active, healthy and happy
Mum-of-three Jessica Price makes sure her kids get plenty of exercise.
The Auckland mother agreed physical activity was important to keep children healthy.
She and her husband Jonathan made a point of taking Cara, 5, Judah, 3, and Lily, 18 months, on family outings or playing with them outside to keep them active.
"You can do kids' soccer and kids' rugby but it's easier with preschoolers to do stuff that works for the whole family," she said.
"We do family trips to the pool and family trips to the park. We have a trampoline. A lot of preschoolers have scooters and bikes. The council runs toys in the park.
"It just revolves around play."
Price said they did not have a hard-and-fast rule on screen time but did try to limit it to 45 minutes to an hour and a half a day.