This Is the Age Kids Lose the Desire to Exercise, According to Science

It's earlier than you might think.

When kids are young, all they want to do is run and play outside. Then, suddenly, they're solely spending time indoors, eating junk food and playing video games. It seems physically impossible to drag them off the couch. So what's the deal with the switch? Well, a new study published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise has pinpointed the age at which children begin to lose interest in exercising and it's younger than you might think.

Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) followed 1,200 Swedish children aged 8 to 12 for two years and found that age 9 appears to be when the desire to run around outside all day sharply decreases. The researchers asked the children to complete a questionnaire every six months that assessed what motivated them to exercise: enjoyment, learning, health, physical education grades, satisfying other people, integration, avoiding guilt or shame, and so forth.

Their results pointed to the fact that at 9 years old, there seems to be a steep decline in wanting to exercise because it was pleasurable or good for their health. Instead, 9-year-olds began to view exercise as something that they did in order to get a good grade in gym class or to look good to their peers. While both are motivational, it's understandable that these factors would lead a child to think of exercise as more of a chore than as something they're doing for their own good.

Given the recent rise of childhood obesity in America—a rate that's tripled since the 1970s—the study's findings are particularly interesting. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every five kids between the ages of 6 and 19 are now considered obese. And the UNIGE researchers noted that while children have always eventually reached an age when the opinions of their peers begin to matter more than freely playing, this is the first time that a decline in exercise has been observed at such an early age.

The findings also add to growing concerns that kids today are experiencing certain stages of development far earlier. For example, in the 1950s, the standard age at which children hit puberty was 13. According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, today, puberty hits at the tender age of 9.

The UNIGE researchers also believe that these results should be noted by schools, given that changes in our approach to physical education may be contributing to the issue.

"PE teaching has changed enormously," lead author Julien Chanal, a researcher in the Psychology Section of UNIGE's Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPSE), said in a press release. "Classes are more academic, with children learning about rules, motor functioning, mutual support, etc. … Now that children don't move as much as before outside school, it's vital that the periods earmarked for PE maximize the time they spend moving."

And for more on how to keep your kids healthy and happy, check out New Study Says Teasing Kids about Their Weight Leads to Weight Gain.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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