Health and Healthcare Systems

These charts show that even before COVID, most children weren’t doing enough exercise

children perform exercise in a sports hall whilst wearing face masks

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends children do at least 60 minutes daily. Image: REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

Emma Charlton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Only around one in four 11-year-olds in the EU reported one hour a day of exercise, according to OECD data.
  • Girls are less physically active than boys in all countries surveyed.
  • 76% of American children don’t get enough daily physical activity.
  • WHO recommends children do at least 60 minutes daily.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic confined millions of people to their homes, most children weren’t doing enough physical activity.

Have you read?

That’s the conclusion of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), whose data shows that across EU countries, only around one in four 11-year-olds and only about one in seven 15-year-olds do an hour of moderate-to-vigorous exercise every day. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends children do at least 60 minutes daily.

a chart showing the different levels of activity by country
Not enough activity. Image: OECD

Italy, France, Portugal and Denmark were among the countries with the lowest levels of activity for both sexes, while Finland and Ireland topped the list. In all countries, girls were less physically active than boys.

American children also inactive

Similar themes emerge from US data, with the National Physical Activity Plan showing 76% of American children and youth don’t get enough daily physical activity.

a graph showing the percentage of 6-17 year olds engaging in over 60 minutes of physical activity every day, by gender
The amount of exercise undertaken by children has fallen in recent years. Image: National Physical Activity Plan

“Some of the factors influencing the levels of physical activity undertaken by children include the availability of safe space and equipment, their school curricula and other competing pastimes, in particular screen activities,” the OECD says. “Heavy use of mobile devices and internet takes time away from other activities, including physical activity.”


The findings matter because the OECD says that physical activity is beneficial for development and sets good habits for adulthood, therefore influencing health outcomes later in life. They’re also important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, since many people have been confined to their homes or missed out on school, which risks compounding the issue.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

COVID-19 caused a drop in exercise among young adults

More investigation needs to be done into the impact of the pandemic on physical activity, according to researchers Bruno C Huber and Julius Steffen.

Writing in the Journal of Translational Medicine, their study of students at six different Bavarian universities showed physical activity decreased when lockdown was implemented. More than 50% of those surveyed said they had been exercising between two hours and five hours a week before lockdown. Afterwards, only 39.7% reported the same.

“In summary, we were able to show, for the first time, a change in physical activity among young adults during the COVID-19 crisis,” they wrote. “Further studies investigating long-term effects of pandemic-related changes in physical activity on morbidity and mortality are warranted.”

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Health and Healthcare SystemsGeographies in Depth
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