A global study has uncovered what most parents of teens would have long suspected - that the majority of teenagers don't do enough physical activity, to the detriment of their health.
But what has come as a shock is that teenagers from New Zealand and Australia are among the most inactive in the world.
The study, conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal, involved surveying 1.6 million 11- to 17-year-old students from 146 different countries. It found that more than 80 per cent of adolescents did not meet current WHO recommendations of at least one hour of physical activity per day.
In New Zealand and Australia that statistic is even higher, at 89 per cent. Australia was one of the worst performers in the global report, ranking 140th out of 146 countries and New Zealand fared only slightly better at position 138.
The research also showed that teenage girls are less active than boys (with 85 per cent of girls not meeting the recommended level of activity, and 78 per cent of boys). Again, those figures skewed slightly higher for Australasia. Of the 146 countries, there were only four where girls were more active than boys - Tonga, Samoa, Afghanistan and Zambia.
And it suggested that nothing has changed since 2001. Boys are slightly more active than they used to be, but the figure is only up two per cent. For girls, there has been no change between 2001 and 2016.
Sport New Zealand's GM of Community Sport, Geoff Barry, says the results are a "huge concern".
"It reinforces what we know through our own research, and while it's negative and not something to be proud of it might stimulate action needed to change the dial."
Barry says we "could spend hours talking about the factors that have led to this - but one of the things that has happened is that what we offer to young people hasn't kept up with what young people are seeking.
"The biggest disconnect is in the provision of activities - we have a way to go to catch up with what they want."
Barry says the majority of young people are less interested in the competitive element of sport and more interested in the social side - being able to engage in a range of sports and activities with their friends.
"It's about offering breadth of opportunities - dance, karate, kapa haka as well as the rugby - but also about playing netball, for example, in lots of different ways - so there's a breadth in two different ways."
Accessibility has played a role, he continues.
"How far families have to travel to get to practices and games, is it safe to play in the playgrounds, is it safe to play in the park?
"A lot of inter-school sport might be played whereas in Auckland now it's really challenging because of the complexity of Auckland as a city, so how do kids get opportunities to play sport without leaving the school grounds?"
Barry is loathe to blame technology or the amount of time young people spend on screens.
"I don't want to overplay that," he says, "because technology can actually be an enabler. You want to find a kapa haka group? You can use technology to help you do that. Educators would say some screen time benefits kids' learning. It's about finding the balance between screen time and physical activity."
A greater barrier to kids being involved in physical activity might be adults, he suggests.
"There are a lot of parental expectations and adult problems driven into kids sports and activities that does put them off – competitiveness, selection, sideline behaviour.
"When you put a group of 14- and 15-year-olds together and they have a space they'll sort out something to play, they tend to get along, they don't tend to have problems. But when you put parents and rules around, and results and selections, it tends to get quite complex and becomes a bit of a turnoff.
"Let youth participate in ways they want to participate," he says.
Being physically active is about more than playing sport though. As both Barry and parenting expert Jackie Riarch from Triple P Parenting point out, it's about opting to walk instead of drive to the bus stop, taking time out to exercise to alleviate exam stress, going wharf jumping with your friends and so on.
Parents need to model being physically active themselves. And it helps to guide your young person to come to their own realisations about the importance of physical activity for their health.
Says Barry, "We are learning that when kids talk about their problems... if you ask them what are the ways to alleviate stress, then the activity comes from that. So if kids create their own answers it's more likely to be something they'll do. If Mum or Dad are telling them to go for a walk [to clear their head while studying for exams]... they need to understand what the problem is before they can get to the solution.
"It's less about tell; they'll ask why. If they're engaged in why and create their answers then they'll get into it."
Sport New Zealand is working on providing sporting and other relevant organisations with support and data around what young people are saying.
"What are the barriers, what are their motivations. We can explore that at a national level and provide greater clarity and sharing."
Barry says Sport New Zealand is also exploring leadership, engagement and coaching opportunities for women and girls. They've launched a disability plan and now employ a 'who is missing out?' approach to their youth strategy, Healthy Active Learning, with a view to improving the environment around sport and physical activity for primary school-aged children - "because that's where it starts".
When asked why New Zealand and Australia rate so poorly alongside the rest of the world, Barry answers, "I've been told not to say this, but it's because we're really good at collecting data.
"The World Health Organisation does a fantastic job, but there is a sophistication to the data New Zealand and Australia collects. If deeper data was provided from other countries the rankings might change. We only know what we know, though, and it's important to focus on the problem rather than make it an international comparison: The WHO is dead right. We have a physical activity problem in New Zealand."
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