Almost all young Australians – aged between 13 and 17 – are not as physically active as they should be with nine out of ten young Australians sitting too much and not moving enough, according to the recommended Australian guidelines [1]. A change towards sedentary lifestyles has happened for many people in many developed countries, including Australia [Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2004) as cited in 2]. With improved access to mobile phones and the internet, children do not need to leave home to keep in contact with their friends outside of school. Today, children are far less likely than children of earlier generations to walk or cycle to get from A to B, or to play outdoors [2].

Instead, children are spending more than the recommended two hours each day using electronic media. The SPANS study in New South Wales found that 61 per cent of boys and 45 per cent of girls in Year Six (aged approximately 11–12 years) were using more than two hours per day of electronic media. This percentage was higher in older age groups: in Year 10, 78 per cent of boys and 67 per cent of girls fell into this group [2].

This increased screen time, combined with a lack of physical activity, can lead to young children being overweight, which often continues into adulthood [3]. In Australia, one in four children and adolescents are overweight or obese and it is predicted that 65 per cent of young Australians will be overweight or obese by 2020 [4]. Increases in the number of overweight and obese children leads to an increasing number of children who suffer with illnesses – including diabetes, asthma and mental health problems -as well as physical pain in muscles and joints, such as back pain [2]. Even Type 2 diabetes – a chronic disease traditionally diagnosed only among adults – is now increasingly being detected among Australian children. Research also shows that overweight and obese children are more likely to be overweight or obese adults. Around 80 per cent of Australia’s obese adolescents will become obese adults [4]. This in turn can lead to a number of serious chronic conditions and even premature death [2].


Keeping children physically active

National guidelines for physical activity recommend infants and preschool children be physically active for at least three hours daily [5] and older children at least one hour daily [1, 6, 7]. The benefits of physical activity are enhanced further when children are more physically active than these recommended times [7]. The guidelines also provide recommendations for the types of physical activity that are appropriate for children.

National guidelines for sedentary behaviour recommend infants and preschool children should not be sedentary, restrained, or kept inactive for more than one hour at a time [5], and for older children these sedentary activities should be broken up as much as possible [1, 6]. These guidelines also recommend that the amount of time children spend sitting and watching television and using other electronic media (DVDs, computer and other electronic games) should be limited to one hour daily for infants [5] and preschool children and two hours daily for older children [1, 6].

Participation in physical activity

It is widely accepted that physical activity participation provides health benefits. Physical activity has a range of benefits as described in a review by Buhlert-Smith, Hagiliassis [8] whose summary is based on works of the Australian Government Department of Health [6], the Centre for Community Child Health [3] and the World Health Organization [7], including:


Social benefits:

  • Creates opportunities for social interaction, making friends and having fun
  • Reduces anti-social behaviours
  • Develops cooperation and teamwork skills

Emotional and intellectual benefits:

  • Improves self-expression
  • Improves self-esteem, confidence and independence
  • Improves management of anxiety, stress and depression
  • Improves concentration
  • Promotes relaxation

Health benefits:

  • Improves physical fitness by improving heart and lung functions
  • Improves balance, coordination and movement skills
  • Improves posture
  • Improves flexibility
  • Builds stronger muscles and bones
  • Promotes healthy joint tissues
  • Promotes healthy growth and development
  • Reduces the risk of unhealthy weight gain by controlling the expenditure of energy
  • Reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease
An active commute – walking or riding to school

Increased use of cars and the associated reduction in physical activity participation is a crucial factor in the rise in childhood obesity [4]. An easy way for school children to increase their physical activity participation is to walk or ride to school, but this type of commute is also in significant decline, with the 2015 Active Healthy Kids Australia [11] study finding:

  • 42 per cent decline in children walking or riding a bike or scooter to/from school, in the past 40 years, with no signs of this decline slowing down [11, p.18]
  • only 50 per cent of children and young people in Australia use active transport (bike, scooter) at least once a week to travel to and/or from school [11, p.11]
  • just 11 per cent of children ride a bike to/ from school, however 90 per cent of Australian households have at least one child’s bike in working order [11, p.6]

The Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) strongly encourages parents to have their children walk, or ride a bike or scooter to school daily as an easy way for children to increase their physical activity participation. The study also found that active transport (through walking or riding a bike or scooter) provides a key contribution to the overall physical activity levels of children and young people in Australia and is feasible, given it can be easily incorporated into daily routines with minimal planning prior and involves little to no financial cost [11].

Riding and walking to school – avoiding injuries and pain from school bags

Children walking or riding to school need to have the correct school bag to avoid injury, as about 70 per cent of Australian school children may suffer back pain from school bags [12].

To avoid back, neck and shoulder pain, postural changes and injuries, school bags should be backpack style, should be less than 10 per cent of the child’s body weight as well as being appropriate for each child’s size with padded and adjusted straps over the shoulders.

As experts in movement and health, physiotherapists can play a vital role in ensuring children using backpacks and undertaking physical activity do these activities safely, to minimise their risk of injury.


Poorly fitting backpacks – what’s the impact on children?
  • Fatigue (reported by 65.7% Australian children) [12]
  • Muscle strain [13-15]
  • Joint injury [13]
  • Back pain [12-15] (reported by 46.1% Australian children) [12]
  • Neck and shoulder pain [13]
  • Lower back pain lasting into adulthood [16]
  • Postural changes [13-16]
  • Injuries to head/face, hand, wrist/elbow, shoulder, foot/ankle as a result of tripping, wearing and being hit by backpacks [17]
Children’s backpacks – injury warning signs and key recommendations

Injury warning signs

  • Posture changes when backpack on [12, 14]
  • Pain [13, 14]
  • Pins and needles in arms/hands [13, 14, 16] or legs [16]
  • Red marks on shoulders [14] especially at the front [16]
  • Difficulty getting backpack on/off [13, 16]

Choosing the right backpack for your child

  • Less than 10 per cent of your child’s body weight [12, 14, 16]
  • Appropriate for your child’s size (examples: purchase new as they grow, no wider than child’s chest) [12, 14, 15]
  • Two straps over the shoulders [12-16]
  • Wide straps [13, 15]
  • Hip strap [12-14, 16] and/or moulded frame [12, 14] and/or waist strap [15]
  • Separate compartments for load distribution [12, 14, 16]
  • Padded straps [12, 14, 15]
  • Adjustable straps [12]
  • Padded back [13, 16]
  • Endorsed by a professional association such as the APA [12, 14]
  • Agreed between yourself and your child [12, 14]
  • Comfort and fit over looks [13]

Recommendations for backpack wear

  • Sit just above the waist; don’t hang low over the buttocks [12, 14]
  • Sit no lower than the small of the back [15]
  • Contour snugly to the back/load carried close to the back [12-14]
  • Heavy items placed closest to the spine [12, 14, 16]
  • Items packed snugly to minimise items/load moving [12, 14]
  • Bend knees when lifting to pick up and put on backpack [12, 13, 16], or put on using a bench [14]