Children are at risk of creating unhealthy habits that could lead to chronic diseases later in life, according to a new report released by AIA Australia.
The Kids’ Health and Wellbeing in Australia report found some concerning children’s health statistics, which if left to accumulate throughout life, could lead to the diseases responsible for more than 90% of deaths in Australia – cancer, diabetes, respiratory disease, heart disease and mental health conditions and disorders.
Read more: Improving duty of care in 2022
The study found children are exposed to 17.4 food and drink promotions during each hour they spend on the internet, the majority of which are for unhealthy foods and drinks
Another concerning finding was that just 12% of children aged 5-12 and 1.9% of young people aged 13-17 meet both the physical activity and sedentary screen-based behaviour guidelines
The data also included alarming mental health-related findings, with 43% of young people saying they felt stress either all of the time or most of the time in 2020. Females were twice as likely as males to feel this way
However, CEO and Managing Director of AIA Australia, Damien Mu, said while the report highlights some concerning insights, it’s not all bad news.
“We have an opportunity to reframe the way we talk to our kids about their health and wellbeing,” Mu told The Educator.
“By educating young people about the importance of taking steps to look after their physical and mental health, we can set them up to lead healthier, longer, better lives.”
The AIA Healthiest Schools Program was developed by globally recognised education specialist, EVERFI for teachers and has the purpose of supporting health and physical education, as well as building students' personal and social capability and supporting cross-curricular learning.
Mu said the AIA Healthiest Schools resources will enable teachers to educate and inspire children across the four pillars of nutrition, physical activity, mental wellbeing, and environmental sustainability.
“Teachers will have free access to a library of flexible and curriculum-linked teaching resources, which include engaging videos, presentations, films and activity sheets that can be adapted to suit the needs of different schools,” he said.
‘The impacts of exercise on the brain are underestimated’
AIA Australia’s resident GP, Dr Preeya Alexander, highlighted several recommendations from the report that can help schools, parents and carers better manage the health and wellbeing of young people.
“The Australian guidelines recommend accumulating 60 minutes of physical activity per day for children aged 5-17 and aiming for some form of muscle strengthening activity 3 days per week,” Dr Alexander told The Educator.
“I think it can be very helpful for children to really understand the benefits of being physically active for both mental and physical health – the simple messaging of ‘moving the body is great for the body and brain’ is what I use with my six and two-year-old and with my little patients in the clinic.”
Dr Alexander said the positive impacts of exercise on the brain are often underestimated.
“We know being physically active can improve nighttime sleep quality, help manage stress and protect the brain against depression. We also know physical activity helps support immune health,” Dr Alexander said.
“When parents ask me how they can prevent colds for their children in winter time I’m constantly talking about regular exercise, getting enough sleep and having a balanced diet – it’s the really simple things [that are evidence based] that can make a big difference when it comes to supporting the immune system.”
Dr Alexander said it’s important to let young people know that accumulating those 60 minutes over the day is also fine.
“The physical activity does not need to be in a block to count so walking to school, being active in PE class, walking home – it all adds up and is great for the body and brain.”
Limit sedentary recreational screen time to 2 hours per day
Dr Alexander said schools and parents should be making young people aware of the risks of too much screen time, adding she talks to young people and adults about this “constantly” in her consulting room.
“Whilst we know screen time is sedentary time and can contribute to obesity and obesity related disease, we also know that screen time can negatively impact sleep quality (particularly if a screen is watched before bed) and mood,” Dr Alexander said.
“I’m constantly reminding young people that screens have a place but that consciously thinking about how you use them and how often is critical.”
Break up long periods of sitting still as often as possible
Dr Alexander said all the time spent moving and being physically active adds up, so young people shouldn’t feel too much pressure to get all their exercise done in one big go.
“It’s all good for you and if children aged 5-17 can accumulate 60 minutes in a day, we know it has a significant positive impact on mental and physical health,” Dr Alexander said.
Uninterrupted sleep can improve physical and mental health
Studies have shown that Australian teens are the third most sleep deprived in the world and that more than 70% of Australian high school students suffer from regular sleep deprivation.
Teenagers face a three-hour sleep deficit per night on average, but those who spend five hours a day online are 50% more likely to fail meeting their minimum sleep requirements than peers who only spend an hour online each day.
Dr Alexander said 9-11 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night is recommended for 5 to 13 year-olds, and 8-10 hours for 14 to 17 years.
“I think we often forget just how important sleep is when it comes to supporting the immune system and supporting mental health,” Dr Alexander said.
“Reminding young people how important sleep is to prevent colds in winter and reduce stress levels is worthwhile.”
Consistent bed and wake up times
Dr Alexander said this all comes into sleep hygiene measures – getting enough good quality sleep at night to support growth, development, and mental health.
“In the clinic I am constantly prescribing sleep hygiene measures to my paediatric and adult patients to try and improve nighttime sleep quality,” Dr Alexander said.
“Avoiding any screens one hour before bed, limiting caffeine intake after 2pm, a regular wind down ritual in the hour before bed, sticking to regular bed and wake times – these are all important.”