April 24, 2013

FITNESS FOR KIDS : ACSM Active Voice: Daily Step Count Targets for the Early Years

Active Voice: Daily Step Count Targets for the Early Years

By Brian W. Timmons, Ph.D.

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM. 

Dr. Brian Timmons is research director of the Child Health & Exercise Medicine Program at McMaster University and associate professor in the Department of Paediatrics. Brian is an ACSM member and his research involves the health effects of physical activity during growth, with a major emphasis on the role of physical activity during the early years.

This commentary presents Dr. Timmons’ views associated with a related research report that he and his colleagues presented in the February 2013 issue of ACSM’s
 Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise® (MSSE). 

Early childhood is a critical time for the development of active living. Our society has assumed that preschoolers are “active enough,” but some research suggests this may not be the case. One of the limitations to our understanding of preschooler physical activity has been an incomplete understanding of “how much is enough.” New Canadian physical activity guidelinesrecommend that children aged three to four years should accumulate at least 180 min. of physical activity, at any intensity, spread throughout the day, including progression toward at least 60 min. of energetic play by five years of age. 

One of the best ways to measure physical activity is to use an accelerometer – a small pager-like device worn on a belt around the waist. An accelerometer isn’t for everyone because it can be expensive and requires complex software for data analysis. We wondered if simply counting the number of steps taken by a child could be another way to identify who is meeting physical activity recommendations. The purpose of our study, as recently reported in MSSE, was to determine thresholds for daily step counts in preschool-aged children, with reference to these new Canadian guidelines. Specifically, we determined the number of children meeting at least 180 minutes of physical activity at any intensity, and the number of children who were engaged in at least 180 minutes of physical activity at any intensity and which included at least 60 minutes of energetic play. The latter we defined as moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA). 

We asked 133 preschoolers to wear an accelerometer for seven consecutive days. Every three seconds, the accelerometer recorded and stored information about both physical activity and step counts. The physical activity information was then analyzed to determine how many minutes were spent at different intensities, including energetic play, using published thresholds developed specifically for preschoolers. We then compared the number of steps children were taking with the amount of physical activity they were getting. With this information, we could determine how many daily steps were equivalent to meeting the new Canadian physical activity recommendations. 
We found that the number of daily steps equivalent to achieving 180 min. of physical activity of any intensity was 6013. The number of daily steps equivalent to achieving 180 min. of physical activity of any intensity, including at least 60 min. of energetic play (or MVPA), was 6191. We then conducted more analysis to determine what the best single step count should be. This value was 6000 steps per day. 
In the last five years, physical activity recommendations for preschoolers have been prepared by three countries – Australia, the UK, and Canada – demonstrating the high degree of scientific interest in monitoring physical activity behaviors during the early years. Finding an easy, inexpensive way to determine whether young children are meeting current physical activity guidelines should be of benefit to health practitioners. Our study found that preschoolers who achieve at least 6000 steps every day are likely to be meeting the new Canadian physical activity guidelines of 180 min of physical activity at any intensity, including at least 60 min. of energetic play. 

For more information on physical activity and health in preschool children, please visit
to download the latest issue of Preschooler Focus.


MapetiteNiche Commentary: As an exercise instructor who has taught in elementary schools, I cannot stress the importance of physical activity. This is the time to teach kids lessons about healthy lifestyle choices. I strongly believe in exercise as preventive medicine and this also applies to kids. The rate of child hood obesity is unbelievably high and instead of looking at pharmaceuticals as the solution, Physical Activity should be the first choice of dealing with this epidermic.

Additional efforts should be made to educate parents and communities because they are responsible for the care of the child.

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