Mums’ activity levels may depend on the number and ages of children

Less than half of mums meet the recommended levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

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Physical activity has many health benefits. However, motherhood is often associated with reduced physical activity. According to evidence, parents and kids who exercise together can deepen their bonds and better handle the rigors of parenting daily. But parents typically exhibit less activity than non-parents.

To examine how family composition affected the number of physical activities mothers engaged in, scientists at the University of Cambridge and the University of Southampton investigated the associations between ages and number of children and device-measured maternal PA.

They analyzed data from 848 women who participated in the UK Southampton Women’s Survey. The women, aged 20-34 years, were recruited between 1998 and 2002 and followed up over subsequent years. They were given accelerometers to assess their levels of activity.

Women who had school-age children engaged in moderate to strenuous physical activity for around 26 minutes each day, compared to about 18 minutes for mothers of infants or toddlers.

Women who had more than one kid were only able to complete 21 minutes* of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day, but curiously, moms who had more than one child under the age of five engaged in more light-intensity activity than mothers who had children in school age.

Less than 50% of mothers met the recommended levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (150 minutes per week), regardless of the ages of their children.

Dr. Kathryn Hesketh from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge said: “When you have small children, your parental responsibilities can be all-consuming, and it’s often hard to find the time to be active outside of time spent caring for your children. Therefore, exercise is often one of the first things to fall by the wayside, so most of the physical activity mums manage to do seems to be lower intensity.”

“However, when children go to school, mums manage to do more physical activity. There are some possible reasons why this might be the case, including more opportunities to take part in higher intensity activities with their children; you may return to active commuting; or feel more comfortable using the time to be acting alone.”

Rachel Simpson, a PhD student in the MRC Epidemiology Unit, added: “There are clear benefits, both short term, and long term, from doing more physical activity, particularly if it increases your heart rate. But the demands of being a mother can make it hard to find the time. We need to consider ways not only to encourage mums but to make it as easy as possible for busy mums, especially those with younger children, to increase the amount of higher intensity physical activity they do.”

Professor Keith Godfrey from the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Centre and the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre said“It is perhaps not unexpected that mothers who have young children or several children engage in less intense physical activity, but this is the first study that has quantified the significance of this reduction. More needs to be done by local government planners and leisure facility providers to support mothers in engaging in physical activity.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Simpson, RF et al. The association between number and ages of children and the physical activity of mothers: cross-sectional analyses from the Southampton Women’s Survey. PLoS ONE; 16 Nov 2022; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0276964