Youth and physical activity, a study shows the importance of living environment and the role of parents

Institutional Communication Service

The SOPHYA study (Swiss Children's Objectively Measured Physical Activity), conducted by the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) in collaboration with the Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) and Université de Lausanne (UNIL), investigated the physical activity and sports behaviour of children and adolescents throughout Switzerland over a period of five years. Physical activity did not decrease during the COVID 19 pandemic. Results show that the living environment and physical activity of the parents have a significant influence on physical activity behaviour during childhood and thus have a long-term impact on the health of children and later adults.

SOPHYA is the first Swiss-wide long-term study that objectively measured the physical activity behaviour of children and adolescents. It was done by using an accelerometer, and simultaneously investigating the influencing factors derived from surveys on sports activities, family, lifestyle, living environment and health. Around 2’300 children and young people, aged 5 to 20, from all over Switzerland, took part in this study between 2014 and 2019/2020. The study made it possible to examine the development of physical activity behaviour from childhood to adolescence and into young adulthood.


Physical activity behaviour during childhood continued into adulthood

The study showed that children who were early on more physically active than other children of the same age were also more active later in life. Less active children found less access to sports or were more likely to leave sports clubs, especially as adolescents. Parents also played an important role here: if the parents themselves were active, the children were also more active. In addition, leaving school was often associated with leaving sports clubs. "The goal should therefore be to find complementary offers to reach the less active children and young people at an early stage, as well as to create offers after leaving school to ensure that children and young people remain active in sports in the long term," said Nicole Probst-Hensch. Head of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Swiss TPH, and principal investigator of SOPYHA.

Girls and young women were less physically and athletically active compared to boys and young men. A big difference was seen in everyday movements, such as cycling. In particular, girls with a migration background rode bikes less. "Girls and young women, with a focus on migrant women, should therefore, be specifically promoted in their physical activity and sports behaviour," said Probst-Hensch.


Socio-economic differences played a minor role

Household income had no influence on measured physical activity, but participation in sports clubs did. Children and adolescents from lower income households tended to be less active in sports than those from higher income households. Voluntary school sports reached children and young people regardless of socio-economic background.


Physical activity-friendly living environment had a long-term positive influence

Participants from French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland were already less physically active in 2014 than participants from German-speaking Switzerland. This difference - albeit somewhat slight - was still visible in 2019. An exercise-friendly living environment played an important role, for example, having a safe traffic environment or access to green spaces and play areas. A less physical activity-friendly living environment had a negative influence on physical activity and sports behaviour in both the short, and long-term. Children from a less physical activity-friendly living environment were also less active five years later than children from a physical activity-friendly living environment.


Positive effects on quality of life

The study showed that sports and exercise had positive effects on the lifestyle, quality of life and stress resilience of the children and adolescents. The more active they were, the less often they consumed tobacco and soft drinks. Physically active children did not have more accidents than inactive children. Active children, however, had fewer sick days than less active children. "Physical activity thus contributes to physical and mental health," said Probst-Hensch.


Children not less active during COVID 19 pandemic

The study also examined the differences in physical activity behaviour before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was found that the pandemic had no impact on the physical activity behaviour of 5- to 10-year-old children. However, girls joined sports clubs at a later age than before the pandemic. "The reason for this could be the girls' preference for indoor sports such as dancing and gymnastics, while for boys, football came first, which could still be played outside despite the pandemic, and was less affected by protective policies," said Johanna Hänggi, co-study coordinator of SOPHYA. Health-related quality of life was lower than in 2014 across all months of the pandemic, especially at the time of high infection rates and the heavy restriction measures in March and December 2020. "Many participants had stated that they were in a sports club because they valued the social contacts there, and these social contacts, which had an important influence on quality of life, fell away during this period," said Bettina Bringolf, co-study coordinator of SOPHYA.
"The results of the SOPHYA study provide important foundations for the promotion of physical activity and sports behaviour and in doing so, contribute to improving the health and well-being of children, adolescents and young adults," said Nicole Probst-Hensch.


About the SOPHYA study

The representative study was conducted by the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) in collaboration with the “Institut des Sciences du Sport de l'Université de Lausanne” (ISSUL) and the “Università della Svizzera italiana” (USI, where the projects was coordinated by Prof. Suzanne Suggs). The Federal Office of Sport (FOSPO) provided substantial financial and content-related support for the study. Further contributions were made by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) and Health Promotion Switzerland. The SOPHYA study was also conducted in close collaboration with the study “Sport Schweiz”.