New physical activity guidelines for under-fives on the way

19 April 2016

The Ministry of Health is set to develop new guidelines for children under-five on physical activity, sedentary behaviour, screen time and sleep.

The new guidelines follow a review of the scientific literature looking at the impact of physical activity in the early years on health outcomes, in particular obesity.

The review by public policy consultants, Allen + Clarke, found that research into the impact of physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep in children under-five was very limited.

However, they identified published studies which showed that all three factors were associated with health outcomes to varying degrees.

A summary of these includes: 

Physical activity:

  • Higher physical activity levels have a positive association with adiposity for infants
  • Better motor skills are positively associated with better communication skills for toddlers
  • Physical activity interventions had limited impact on improving motor skills, sedentary behaviour, or adiposity indicators, in pre-schoolers.

Sedentary behaviour:

  • Higher screen time (including TV viewing) was associated with poorer health outcomes
  • Increased TV viewing is associated with higher adiposity in toddlers
  • High computer use by pre-schoolers (from high income families only) is associated with less sleep
  • Media use is negatively associated with psychosocial health indicators in pre-schoolers
  • Type of TV content (eg, fast-paced content) decreases cognitive abilities (i.e., executive functioning), temporarily among pre-schoolers
  • Interventions targeting reduced TV viewing had limited impact on adiposity in pre-schoolers.


  • Poor sleep habits are associated with poorer health outcomes in later childhood
  • Infants and toddlers with short sleep times were found to have higher BMI values, increased fat mass, greater risk of obesity and lower health-related quality of life
  • Sleep is impacted by media use and impacts adiposity
  • Each additional hour of sleep per night between the ages of three and five years was associated with a 0.39 unit reduction in BMI and a 0.48 reduction in fat mass index at aged seven. 

The report also looked at other country’s guidelines for physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under five.

It concluded that even though more evidence is needed in this area, New Zealand could develop guidelines for children under-five and update resources for parents and others.

The Ministry of Health has taken this on board and is now set to develop guidelines and appropriate resources.  This is expected to take 12 to 18 months.

You can read the Allen + Clarke report here.