Just how healthy are Aussie pre-teens?

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  Last updated July 8, 2019 at 1:43 pm

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Researchers have found that while Aussie pre-teens are generally pretty healthy, their snacking, physical activity and sleep habits could be improved.


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Researchers have found that pre-teens sit and lie down for up to 21 hours a day, highlighting a need for more physical activity and less sedentary habits.


A one-off health check of 1,800 Australian children has provided a snapshot of the health of Aussie kids aged 11 to 12 years.


The series of studies, known as the Child Health CheckPoint, looked at everything from weight and cholesterol to lung function, hearing and sleep, to see just how healthy Aussie pre-teens are.


And while most are healthy, researchers say there is room for improvement, especially when it comes to physical activity, sleep, snacking, weight and early signs of chronic kidney disease.


The first decade of life can set up lifelong health


Researchers carried out 20 different health tests from over 30 cities and towns across Australia, and also tested at least one parent to get an idea of which elements of our health are inherited, and which come down to the choices we make.


Melissa Wake from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI), the study’s lead author, says in an AusSMC briefing that the study was able to give the team an idea of how the first decade of life can set a person up for lifelong health.


“I’m sure that you’re all aware that Australians and Australia are really affected by what we call ‘diseases of ageing‘,” Wake says.


“So things like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis… those burden individual Australians a great deal as they get older, and the seeds for those are sown in childhood and we’re really seeing evidence of this in this unique new dataset.”


Studying these disease burdens are especially important, according to Wake, as they can give us more information about which diseases are more genetically influenced, and which more are due to lifestyle, and this can help decide where to spend money on health interventions.


Children’s habits mirror parents to a small extent


In particular, measurements of snacking and weight uncovered interesting results for pre-teens, as researchers found children are not necessarily destined to inherit their parents’ weight problems.


Lead researcher of the body weight and body composition portion of the study, Susan Clifford from MCRI, says that while there has been a pessimism that children of overweight parents will inevitably become overweight themselves, there are many other influences that can change their lifestyle habits.


“Parents are, to some extent, nutritional gatekeepers for their children,” Clifford says, “but on the other hand, children spend a lot of time at school and with friends and in other environments not shared with their parents.”


These results were similarly reflected in the researchers’ tests of parents and children’s snacking habits, where they found children’s habits mirrored their parents to a small extent.


Paper author Jessica Kerr, also from MCRI, says this shows encouraging parents to snack less could improve their children’s diets too, but these interventions also need to be paired with a range of other factors.


“Changing children’s habits won’t only be about targeting the parents’ food intake; that’s probably only part of the solution,” Kerr says.


“We believe that change likely needs to be more widespread and also target children’s environments such as snack food availability, advertising and the cost of these foods as well.”


Aussie pre-teens sit and lie down for 21 hours a day


One other lifestyle factor that requires urgent attention, according to the data, is the alarming amount of time our pre-teens spend sleeping and sitting.


Tim Olds from The University of South Australia worked with MCRI to measure the movement of the pre-teens and their parents over a week using accelerometers.


They found our young people are spending 11 hours sitting still, and only around half an hour a day doing some kind of exercise.


Combine this with kids getting their recommended nine hours of sleep a night, Olds notes that this means, in total, Aussie kids are sitting and lying down for around 21 hours a day.


And while some of this is unavoidable due to school and homework, screen time seems to be the major issue to address. Researchers noted that at some points during the study, the data showed children were sitting so still researchers thought they had fallen asleep, only to be told they had just been watching television.


“There is mounting evidence that while not all types of sedentary time are equally harmful, television is especially linked to unfavourable health outcomes. It may be that the makeup of sedentary time is as important as the overall duration,” Olds says.


“Hours spent watching TV use may be a marker of general household dysfunction, poor routines and less emphasis on health. The more hours of TV, the worse outcomes across the board from blood pressure to academics and quality of life.”


Watch the full AusSMC briefing here.


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About the Author

Olivia Henry
Olivia Henry is Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days nerding out about the latest research in the hopes that journalists will nerd out too. Olivia has Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Science and Media (Journalism), and has studied in Japan and Spain. Before joining the AusSMC in 2018, Olivia worked at Fairfax Media, SciWorld, Channel 44 Adelaide and interned at Australia's Science Channel. If you like this super-funky-science-machine, you can catch her talking science on 2CC Canberra or hosting the Night Shift on Radio Adelaide.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.


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