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Physical activity in young children : the benefits

by P. Debraux | 14 February 2018

physical activity, children, benefits, osteoporosis, young, intense, HIIT, circuit training, small-sided game

In the industrialized countries, sedentarism is increasing, the time spent in front of a screen is constantly increasing and the time devoted to physical activity is decreasing, with an unbalanced diet in terms of quality and quantity. These findings also affect children in whom different studies report a decline in physical condition compared to previous generations.

To counteract this, regular practice of moderate to intense physical activity is often advised. Among its many physiological and psychological benefits, one must consider its impact on density and bone mineral mass. In fact, low bone strength during childhood is linked to an increased risk of fractures later in life. However, during pre-puberty, physical activity in children allows for greater bone accumulation and an improvement in peak bone mass in the third decade of life. However, osteogenesis (the construction of bone mineral tissue) varies depending on the type of activity, the magnitude of load, the frequency of loading, the repeatability, etc. For example, studies have shown that children who play football in club have a higher bone health than those who do not play sports club or who play non-weight-bearing sports such as cycling and swimming. That being said, keep in mind that it is never too late to improve your bone health through physical activity (see our article on the subject).

The school is thus a favorable platform to promote physical activity since it makes it possible to reach all children, and regularly. Some studies have shown that physical activity at school has a positive impact on density and bone mineral mass, while others do not, the results being conditioned by the protocols in place. So what is the real impact of physical activity in children ?

The Study

To answer this question, in a large-scale study involving more than 400 children (Frequent Intense Training - Football, Interval Running and Strength Training, "FIT FIRST"), a team of Danish researchers studied the impact of two different training protocols in children aged 8 to 10 years old. Thus, during 10 months, 295 children aged 8 to 10, girls and boys were divided into 3 groups: Small-Sided Game (SSG) (n = 96), Circuit Training (CT) (n = 83) and Control (n = 116).

For both sports groups, the children made 3 sessions of 40 minutes per week at school. The SSG group played football, basketball, floorball or other sports in small teams, usually 3 vs. 3 (and more rarely, 4 vs. 4) on a smaller playing field. As for the CT group, the children performed various exercises including 6-10 exercises for the upper and lower body, strength and plyometrics, and some core training. The efforts were maximal during 30 seconds with 45 seconds of rest. In both groups, each child wore a cuff containing a GPS and an accelerometer to quantify the intensity of the sessions.

To evaluate the impact of these different protocols, the researchers performed tests before and after the 10 months of the protocol, where they evaluated:

  • The different anthropometric parameters: body mass, height and sexual maturity (Tanner scale)
  • Bone mineral density and bone mineral content of the whole body and leg, and lean body mass via DEXA
  • Postural balance with the flamingo balance test
  • Long jump
  • 20m sprints
  • Coordination motor skill

Results & Analyzes

The main results of this study show that intense, regular and supervised physical activity for 10 months significantly improves bone mineralization, long jump performance and postural balance (Fig 1 and Table 1). No other parameters were improved between the three groups.

The results of measurements of bone mineral density and content show that the SSG group gained significantly more bone mineral density in the leg than the other two groups (Fig. 1). Therefore, the lower limbs seem more involved, with more intensity in small-sided games than during circuit training. In addition, taking into account the sexual maturity of children through the Tanner scale shows that the changes observed for the SSG group are due to physical activity and not to growth. For the CT group, it is less clear because many of the girls in this group went from stage 2 to stage 3 on the Tanner scale. Some of the observed results could therefore be attributable to growth. Finally, it is important to note that the results obtained in the SSG group were more homogeneous between the different schools from which the children were derived in comparison with the CT group.

Figure 2. Représentation du développé couché concentrique. La barre démarre au point A et termine sa course au point B.

Practical Applications

Osteoporosis is a phenomenon that can occur with age and lack of physical activity. It is associated with increased mortality due to fractures and the complications they can cause. It is therefore important to anticipate this as soon as possible and the optimal time to increase bone mass occurs during pre-puberty and puberty. This study shows the positive impact on bone health in 8-10 years old children of regular and intense physical activity in the form of small-sided games and circuit training at school. With however a slight advantage for reduced collective games.


  1. Larsen MN, Nielsen CM, Helge EW, Madsen M, Manniche V, Hansen L, Hansen PR, Bangsbo J and Krustrup P. Positive effects on bone mineralisation and muscular fitness after 10 months of intense school-based physical training for children aged 8-10 years : the FIT FIRST randomised controlled trial. Br J Sports Med 52 : 254-260, 2018.

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