Physical activity among children and adolescents

Physical activity is beneficial for child and adolescent development and can set good habits for adulthood, thereby influencing health outcomes later in life. WHO recommends that children do at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily, yet these recommendations are not met by most children and adolescents in all countries.

On average across EU countries, only around one in four 11-year-olds and only about one in seven 15-year-olds reported that they undertook moderate-to-vigorous exercise at least one hour daily in 2018 (Figure 4.13). In all countries, girls are less physically active than boys at both ages. Physical activity also falls sharply between ages 11 to 15 in most EU countries for both genders. The proportion of girls and boys doing sufficient physical activity each day is lowest in Italy, France, Portugal and Denmark. In Italy, France and Denmark, the shares were already low in 2014, while they decreased from 16% in 2014 to 11% in 2018 among the 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds in Portugal.

On average across EU countries, the proportion of children and adolescents doing moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day has decreased slightly between 2006 and 2018 for both boys and girls, and in all age groups (Figure 4.14). For boys aged 11 years old and 13 years old, the rate decreased by 4 percentage points, narrowing the gap with the physical activity level of girls at the same age.

Some of the factors influencing the levels of physical activity undertaken by children include the availability of safe space and equipment, their school curricula and other competing pastimes, in particular screen activities. Heavy use of mobile devices and internet takes time away from other activities, including physical activity (OECD, 2019).

Physical activity can be encouraged by the promotion of physical education, such as active play or recreation as well as safe independent mobility (WHO, 2018). EU countries have taken a number of initiatives to change behaviours in children and adolescents, and more generally, in the whole population. For example, in Slovenia, the National Nutrition and Physical Activity Strategy 2015-25 aims to improve physical activity habits across all age groups to tackle growing obesity, including through school-based programmes such as the “SLOfit surveillance system” (OECD/European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, 2019). In Finland, The National Obesity Programme 2012-18 aimed at reducing obesity rates by encouraging healthy nutrition and physical activity. This programme included objectives for the whole population, specific age groups (such as school-age children), municipalities and schools. It also offered check-lists to support implementation for schools, health professionals and municipalities. In addition, other initiatives intend to address the gender gap in physical activity, such as “This Girl Can” campaign in the United Kingdom (Owen et al. 2017; Guthold et al., 2020).


Guthold, R. et al. (2020), “Global trends in insufficient physical activity among adolescents: a pooled analysis of 298 population-based surveys with 1·6 million participants”, The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, Vol. 4/1, pp. 23-35,

Inchley, J. et al. (2020), Spotlight on adolescent health and well-being: Findings from the 2017/2018 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey in Europe and Canada, International report, Vol. 2,  Key data, WHO Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen.

OECD (2019), The Heavy Burden of Obesity: The Economics of Prevention, OECD Health Policy Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD/European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies (2019), Slovenia: Country Health Profile 2019, State of Health in the EU, OECD Publishing, Paris/European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, Brussels,

Owen, M. et al. (2017), “The effectiveness of school-based physical activity interventions for adolescent girls: A systematic review and meta-analysis”, Preventive Medicine, Vol. 105, pp. 237-249,

WHO (2018), Physical activity factsheets for the 28 European Union member States of the WHO European region, WHO Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen.

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