Physical activity (PA) during preschool years is critical to a child’s development and overall health and well-being [1
]; therefore, it is important to integrate PA into early childhood [3
]. In 2016, over 41 million children worldwide under the age of 5 years were estimated to be overweight [5
]. Childhood obesity is an increasing public health concern [6
] and weight gained by the age of 5 years has been reported as a predictor of being overweight in adulthood [7
]. Physical activity levels and sedentary behaviours of children in the UK have been viewed as ‘obesogenic’ [8
], with habitual PA declining over recent years and sedentary behaviour being the dominant state of children’s PA levels during their preschool day [4
]. Although studies have examined PA in children aged 5 years and above, fewer studies have been conducted with preschool children. This limited evidence base in UK preschool children’s PA levels is therefore a cause for concern.
It has been recommended that preschool children in the UK should ideally be participating in at least 180 min of PA per day [13
]. Studies have discovered that preschool children spend the majority of their day in sedentary behaviours and a low proportion of their day in moderate to vigorous PA (MVPA) (<15%) [10
]. Of children aged between 2 and 4 years in England, only about one in 10 meet the recommendations of at least 180 min of PA per day [18
]. It has been reported that children engaged in 7.7 min of MVPA per hour at preschool [20
]. Therefore, in accordance with Pate et al. [20
], if a child, for example, attends preschool for 8 h, they would only engage in ~1 h of MVPA and it is unlikely they would participate in a further 2 h of PA outside of preschool. However, no study has systematically checked to see whether there is a difference in physical activity between weekdays, when the child attends preschool, and weekend days, when the child is influenced more by their home environment. O’Dwyer et al. [21
] reported that there were discrete periods during the after-preschool hours and at the weekend when PA levels were low, yet children who attended preschool for full days engaged in 11.1 min MVPA less than those attending for half days, suggesting that the preschool environment is related to decreased PA. That said, studies have shown that PA in preschoolers differs over the course of the day and the week in countries such as Sweden, England and Denmark [21
], with some studies reporting that preschool children are more often physically active on weekend days than on weekdays in Australia and England, for example [21
], while others found that preschool children undertook more total PA and MVPA during preschool hours in Sweden, Denmark, England and Finland [22
]. Therefore, additional research is required to identify any potential differences in PA between weekdays and weekend days in preschool children.
The accurate measurement of PA is fundamental in evaluating the effectiveness of interventions and understanding relationships between PA and health [28
]. Measuring habitual PA accurately is beneficial when observing the frequency and distribution of PA in preschool children and identifying the amount of PA that could influence their health. The objective monitoring of PA is important and accelerometers have become a reliable and valid way of estimating children’s PA [29
], whilst also showing promise in monitoring preschool children’s PA. Accelerometers are an appropriate objective measure in terms of validity, reliability and practicality as a method for the measurement of intensity, duration and frequency of movement for sedentary behaviour and habitual PA in 3–5 year olds [1
]. Accelerometers can be set at different sampling intervals, with some studies being set at one-minute intervals [1
]. However, one-minute sampling intervals may mask the short intermittent bursts of activity that are representative of young children and therefore shorter sampling intervals have been recommended [20
]. As very few studies have used objective monitoring of PA via accelerometery in preschool children, then further research is required to examine the intensity of PA that these children participate in on weekdays in preschool and at the weekend.
This is the first study to compare PA levels between week and weekend days, using objective measurements in the form of the newly calibrated GENEActiv accelerometer cut-points for preschool children in the UK. This study aims to determine whether the intensity and duration of PA varies between weekdays and weekend days.
The current study sought to compare PA levels of preschool children between weekdays and weekend days, and the key finding of this study is that there are significant differences in PA between weekdays and weekend days. Of particular note, more than 90% of the time during both weekdays and weekend days was spent in sedentary behaviour. Additionally, this study found that none of the children were considered ‘sufficiently active’, failing to participate in the UK recommended level of at least 180 min of light PA and MVPA per day of total PA for health. As zero preschool children in this study reported meeting the PA guidelines, this is a major concern, especially as the children were struggling to achieve 60 min of total PA. As the majority of this sample (98%) were part-time preschool children, this could be reflective of this specific preschool child. The children in this study spent time in both the preschool setting and with their parents, in the home environment. It would be pertinent to assess preschool children who are full-time, to ascertain if this provides a similar or different outcome in their PA levels. This would be influential in identifying whether the results of this study are reflective of British preschool children, or if the time children spent in preschool affects their PA levels.
Studies have shown that parents have a significant impact on PA in their preschool children on week and weekend days [51
]. Therefore, other explanations for the differences in sedentary behaviour between the week and weekend days could be a result of parents displaying higher sedentary behaviours when they are with their children, and children who are exposed to these behaviours copy them during weekend days [55
]. This is supported by Sigmundová et al. [56
], who found that children from both urban and rural populations had a stronger significant association with sedentary behaviour during weekend days as compared to weekdays. Moore et al. [57
] discovered that middle-class American children aged 4–7 years old (incorporating the preschool years), who have one physically active parent, had a relative odds ratio of their child being active between 2.0 (mother) and 3.5 (father). However, if both parents were active then the relative odds ratio was 5.8, with no difference reported between week versus weekend day. Sigmundová et al. [56
] monitored children from both urban and rural areas, and discovered that if mothers are more active, then their children are more likely to be more physically active. This was observed to be significant only on weekend days. We do not know the activity patterns of the parents of the children who took part in the present study, but this may have been a contributing factor to the sedentary behaviour patterns that were reported.
A second key finding of this present study is that there are differences in the percentage of time spent in different intensities of PA between weekdays and weekend days for preschool children. During weekdays, the children spent significantly less time in sedentary behaviours (91.9% vs. 96.9%), when compared to weekends. This finding was recorded using the right wrist, which in this study was the dominant hand for 169 of the children (91.4% of the sample). This finding contradicts research by Vásquez et al. [58
] in Chilean children (North of Santiago City), who objectively measured PA via a Tritrac-R3D research ergometer and reported that preschool children spent more time in sedentary activities in day-care centres (week vs. weekend) and the children were more active at home at weekends. These differences were also linked with the children’s diet and it was discovered that the energy balance was appropriate during the week, as the energy intake in the preschools was reduced. This could explain the differences, as the day-care settings were providing less energy intake; therefore, the children may have been less inclined to be active. Equally, these findings could have been representative of the cultural background, geographical location or differences in the method used for objective measurement of the children involved. A further reason for potential differences between the sedentary behaviours of preschool children during the week and weekend days could be attributed to the time that children spend watching television or playing on computer games, smart phones/tablets (screen time). Previous research has shown that Australian preschool children from different socio-economic backgrounds whose parents limit television viewing spent significantly less time in sedentary behaviours [59
]. A study of preschool children from a mixed socio-economic area in the southwest of England reported that 12% of boys and 8% of girls watched ≥2 hours of TV each weekday, compared to 45% of boys and 43% of girls who watched ≥2 h a day on weekend days [60
]. The amount of screen time that children in this current study participated in could have been a contributing factor to the differences in time spent in sedentary behaviours during week and weekend days. Parental influence on PA during weekend days may therefore be an important factor that requires greater attention by public health professionals; this could be a result of parents lacking an understanding of appropriate PA to deliver to their children, or a lack of time. Despite this, the extant literature on parental influence on PA levels in British preschool children is scarce. Additional work is required on this topic, in the context of weekday to weekend day variations in children’s PA. Equally, the intensity levels of PA of preschool children could be improved through interventions, both in preschools and at home with parents.
Research has reported PA levels and sedentary time as being highly varied and inconsistent between studies across different countries, making it hard to determine preschool children’s true PA levels and sedentary behaviour [61
]. Reilly [12
] measured PA levels from studies over the period of 2000–2008 and discovered that sedentary behaviour was particularly high. However, more recently, in a data collection period from 2006–2009 and a 7 month data collection period in the year 2013, it was reported that 100% of UK preschool children met the recommend daily PA guidelines [22
]. The current data from this study show that a substantial proportion of each day is spent in sedentary behaviour in British preschool children from a deprived area. This finding has important public health implications around the excessively high sedentary behaviours displayed by preschool children in the UK and therefore provides a clear indication that interventions aiming to convert sedentary behaviours into light or MVPA are required. These data were obtained across a wide measurement period and across all seasons and therefore provide a spread of representative data for the whole of the year. However, this study did not assess each child at different points throughout the year, as it is very labour-intensive and demanding to assess PA in preschool children at one time point and then assess them again across different seasons, and would likely lead to much higher attrition. Therefore, this study did not consider seasonal adjustments. However, future research may consider this, to identify if preschool children are more active in the summer months in England, when compared to the cold environment in the winter months, similar to the results found in 437 preschool children in America [62
]. However, this was in contrast to a study of 214 children aged 3–5 years in America, which reported no differences in PA levels between the summer and autumn months [63
]. Moreover, further studies in Sweden and America [64
] also found no variation according to the season of measurement in preschool children. As none of these studies were conducted in England, future research into the seasonal variation of PA in England would be beneficial.
The amount of time spent in different intensities of PA was found to vary between weekdays and weekends, with less moderate and vigorous PA accrued during weekends. However, MVPA was very limited in both parts of the week. Such a finding might be suggestive that regular engagement in the preschool environment provides greater opportunities to accrue PA, which may not be present in the home setting. The light intensity minutes were very low during both the week and weekend days. The wrist-worn accelerometers may not be very precise at detailing light ambulation, where playing with Lego® was at the top end of the sedentary category. Therefore, future research to determine the accuracy of the light PA classifications would be beneficial. Similar research using Actigraphs has shown that using the cut-point of 160 cpm to distinguish light intensity from sedentary behaviours is questionable [66
]. It is believed that this threshold may misclassify sedentary behaviours such as seated play and crafts as light intensity, which would cause an overestimation of total PA minutes and underestimate the steps per day [66
] that are required to achieve the daily UK 180 minutes of recommended PA. This is a current problem, as there is no consensus on the optimal cut-points for distinguishing sedentary from light PA in preschool children [56
]. Also, the cut-points used for light intensity PA in this study were taken from laboratory-derived tasks that were constant in nature, whereas the real-life activities of preschool children are more varied and intermittent. This may have made it more difficult to differentiate light PA from sedentary behaviour, as the determination is dependent on the cut-point used. However, this is a feature of most of the research using accelerometers to classify/assess PA [66
]. Therefore, it could be suggested that the cut-points used in this study were too conservative, however, as they are the only cut-points related to preschool children specifically for the GENEActiv accelerometers, then they were the most appropriate to have adopted.
Using wrist-worn accelerometers can be logistically and practically challenging with preschool children [31
], as the accelerometer can sometimes be regarded as uncomfortable or an annoyance when worn for long periods of time, thus questioning the appropriateness of the accelerometer for preschool children. In the current study, although a cut-off of 6 h per day was employed for inclusion in the data analysis, the participants exceeded this value with total mean wear time per day for all days, which was over 577 min (>9.6 h). The mean wear time for weekdays was 573 min (9.6 h) and that for weekend days was 581 min (>9.7 h). We took this to be an indication that the majority of the children in this study were comfortable wearing the accelerometers. It could be questioned whether <600 min/day (10 h) is a true representation of a preschool child’s whole day (24 h). It would be beneficial for future research to measure PA for a greater duration, for example 12 hours, to see if this affects the total PA in a day, in terms of less sedentary behaviours and more MVPA. As mentioned, it could be questioned whether wearing the accelerometer on the wrist is suitable for preschool children. Research has looked at the difference between wearing a wrist and hip accelerometer on preschool children and one study in Scotland found that wrist-worn accelerometers provided a valid estimate of total physical activity, whereas hip-worn accelerometers showed a reasonable agreement to cut-points [68
]. This was supported by a study in Stockholm, Sweden, which similarly monitored preschool children and found that wrist-worn accelerometers performed more accurately when assessing time spent in sedentary, light activity and MVPA, when compared to hip-worn accelerometers [69
]. In terms a study by Johannsson et al. [69
], however, there were stark differences between the mean (SD) counts measured over 5 s for wrist and hip activity, with the vector magnitude (a combined measure of the three axes, x, y and z) when watching a cartoon measuring 91 (73) for the wrist and 14 (15) for the hip, and when dancing, the 1093 (330) was measured for the wrist and 396 (148) for the hip. These are large contrasts, highlighting that where the accelerometers are worn is an important factor to be considered. This present study had the preschool children wearing them on their wrist, which, in accordance with other studies [68
], is the more accurate and valid place to wear them when using the vector magnitude measure, as opposed to the vertical axis measure.
Although the current study successfully used accelerometery as an objective monitoring tool in preschool children, some limitations should also be considered. Some of the accelerometers failed to record data; this manufacturer problem caused no data to be recorded for seven participants. GENEActiv accelerometers worn at the wrist may not be capable of detailing light ambulation precisely, as possibly indicated by the low levels of light PA reported. Equally, wrist-worn accelerometers in young children may also impact the light intensity PA data; however, the research does appear to show that the location, whether at the wrist or hip, has no significant effect on the PA levels reported [70
]. As previously stated, the preschool children were assessed once in a season and not across all seasons. Although children were assessed throughout different seasons, which provided representative data, the lack of assessment of each child in all seasons should be considered a limitation of the study. The preschool children that were monitored were drawn from a deprived part of the UK. It has been reported that the prevalence of obesity amongst 4–5 year olds in the most deprived 10% of England is approximately double the levels of the least deprived 10% of England [72
]. In this current study, 10.8% (20 out of 185) were considered obese. Low socio-economic status (SES) children face greater barriers to becoming physically active and, as they age, low SES individuals have higher rates of obesity and associated comorbidities [73
]. Additionally, people from lower SES groups predominantly live in areas that do not support walking and cycling [74
]. This viewpoint suggests that deprived areas do not facilitate PA as effectively as other areas and, as such, people living in deprived areas may not participate in PA as frequently. This said, further research comparing both high and low socio-economic status groups would be welcome to extend the literature on preschool children. Understanding the levels of PA in this group is useful to allow for the planning of early interventions to improve current and future health.