This novel study assessed the impact of COVID-19 on PA and PL using a repeated measures design. This study revealed substantial reductions in PA impacting over 85% of the children, along with an increase of 38% in the number of children not meeting PA guidelines, as a result of the pandemic. These findings, based upon repeated measures align with the emerging cross-sectional data (Tison et al. 2020; Moore et al. 2020, 2021). Since these children aged a year, it is important to consider the age-related effect on PA. The reductions in PA in this study (-0.8 on PAQ-C) far exceed those associated with previously reported age-related decreases in PA (-0.04) in an age-matched cohort using the same instrument (Thompson et al. 2003). This reflects that the vast majority of PA reduction observed in the current cohort is related to the pandemic. We further explored the trend of declining PA with age in more recent publications (Farooq et al. 2018; Pate et al. 2022) and although all demonstrate declines using different measures of PA, the decrease from one year to the next is gradual, and would not be reflective of a decrease of 1 point on a 5 point scale within one year as seen in our study.
The child’s self-description of PL for the whole sample did not change with the pandemic (Table 1), however, when participants were categorized into pre-pandemic to pandemic PA trajectories (HH, HL, LL), a PL gradient was observed for all PL subscales, as well as the parental assessment of the child’s PL. This association between PA trajectories and PL are consistent with the PL to PA to health conceptual framework (Cairney et al. 2019), and support the postulation of PL as a putative protective factor. Plausible explanations for this finding are that children with higher PL may have exhibited greater agency for their own movement behaviours (Gurdal and Sorbring 2018), or that the parents of this specific sub-group offered movement opportunities for their children during the pandemic. Both pre-pandemic and pandemic related data indicate that parental support is critical to a child’s movement behaviour, as PA levels are higher in individuals with support from parents (Rhodes et al. 2019; Moore et al. 2020, 2021).
Further, since distinct PL for PA trajectory subgroups were identified, and consistent with trajectories identified in motor competence literature (Robinson et al. 2015), this would support the need for individualized strategies to re-engage children dependent on the category in which they fall. This finding is consistent with that reported byBremer et al. (2020) showing a relationship between PL and PA. Interestingly, for developing a post-pandemic recovery strategy, these results point to the use of the intrinsic valuation inherent in PL(Cairney et al. 2019, Stuckey et al. 2021), rather than instrumental valuation PA (meeting guidelines to avoid non-communicable disease), as PL necessarily requires an individualized or perhaps sub-group based approach consistent with the sub-groups reported here.
One novel but disturbing finding was that the impact of the pandemic was not restricted solely to a behavioural change (PA and PL), but that decreased PA was concomitant with a reduced valuation of movement across three movement contexts (school, family, friends). First, this suggests that remediation efforts should take place not only in schools, but also in community and at home. This is a very important consideration in the approaches used to recover PA levels of children post-pandemic, especially since the children with both HH and HL trajectories had reduced valuation of movement. Second, pandemic restrictions could have contributed to movement challenges for children, but messaging from government, parents, and others may have reinforced a lesser value of movement during this time. Perhaps there is a need to redirect funds to secure new ways for children to move with adequate safety in pandemic, recovery, and post-pandemic times (Lawson Foundation 2020).
Strengths and Limitations
Although there is increased power of the “within subjects” design utilized in this study, the second measurement was obtained at one, relatively early time point, and one specific region of lockdown during the pandemic, and, as such the subsequent impact of an additional year of restrictions needs to be considered, as well as the moderate variation of pandemic restrictions on children worldwide. Further, although this study examined children to 8 to 14 years of age, the mean age represents a pre-pubescent sample, and the extrapolation to youth in general is cautioned. This study is also limited by the utilization of a self-reported measure of PA, as this may mis-represent the actual PA levels of participants. Typically, self-reported PA is higher than actual levels, so the significant drop in PA observed may be more severe if measured objectively.