Researchers from the University of Essex in the U.K. have some troubling news to report: Fitness levels among U.K. schoolchildren are declining at a faster rate than ever. A 2009 study found a drop in fitness levels of about 0.8% over the original study 10 years earlier,
in 1998. Between 2009 and 2014, just 6 years later, that drop rate increased to 0.95%.
The study involved 300 schoolchildren aged 10 and 11 who underwent fitness testing and measurements to determine body mass index. Interestingly, despite the significant drop in fitness levels, the individuals tested for the 2014 study had lower BMIs than the subjects of the 1998 and 2009 studies. This detail baffled the scientists, as they had hypothesized that thinner children would be more physically capable than those who were carrying extra weight. In fact, they found that the children in the 2014 study possessed lower cardiorespiratory capacity than those from the previous studies.
“It has got to the stage now that if we took the least fit child from a class of 30 we tested in 1998, [that child] would be one of the five fit-test children in a class of the same age today,” explained lead researcher Gavin Sandercock, PhD, in a press release.
Because of this, Sandercock and colleagues urge health professionals to avoid looking at BMI as a sole indicator of a child’s health. “BMI doesn’t tell
us very much about children’s health or lifestyle,” Sandercock said. “Lower BMI values could be due to children eating less or doing more, or it could be that one group is taller.
“Seeing fitness falling independent of BMI tells us for certain that the cause
of the decline is a lack of physical activity. Being unfit and being obese are just two symptoms of physical inactivity that we can see—what we can’t see [are] the health problems building up in today’s unfit children.”