Family walking with children
Family walking with children

How do we beat prolonged sitting behaviour?

The Netherlands is plagued by a sitting epidemic ( 32 per cent of all Dutch people sit longer than 8.5 hours on an average day, 15 per cent above the European average. Adults sit on the couch or chair for almost 10 hours daily (Henke, Trouw, 21-10-2023). Why is that bad? Prolonged sitting, also known as sedentary behaviour, increases the risk of early death and is associated with cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and even some forms of cancer ( How do we ensure that new generations sport and lead an active lifestyle?

This is precisely what behavioural scientist Hidde Bekhuis of the Behavioural Science Institute wants to know. His latest research, for which he asked 6,000 people questions about their sports behaviour, shows that significant life changes increase the likelihood of exercising less. Consider having a child, for example, or transitioning from primary to secondary school. He also sees that parental behaviour plays a significant role. 'If parents set a good example, the chances are many times higher that the child will continue to exercise for life, stay healthy and meet the exercise standard,' says Bekhuis.

What is the exercise norm?

'For adults, meeting the exercise norm means 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a day, such as taking your child to school by bike or cycling to work. You also do bone and muscle-strengthening exercises, such as fitness, twice a week,' says Bekhuis. He continues: 'For children, the exercise standard is one hour a day of moderate-intensity exercise. Playing outside a lot will get you a long way!' Half an hour's exercise a day may seem minor, yet Western Europe still needs to meet that standard. 'It is shocking, but the prognosis is that seventy percent of the Dutch population will be obese by 2040,' says Bekhuis. And that's even though we play many sports in the Netherlands.

Being less active through lots of sports, how is that possible?

Sixty per cent of Dutch people exercise once a week or more. 'This puts us among the top five sports people in Europe,' says Bekhuis. So why do more than half of the Netherlands still need to meet the exercise norm? 'It is precisely because we exercise so much that we feel we can take the bus to work, or take the car to do some shopping, etc. It is precisely those 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a day that keep us healthy,' says Bekhuis. This does not mean that we do not have to exercise; it is mainly a matter of balance.

Less motivation to keep sporting

'It became clear from this study that that many parents stop sporting once when they have children. Combining raising a child with a job takes all the energy parents have,' says Bekhuis. 'Add to that the fact that our whole society is set up for convenience; how many tasks can we do sitting down these days?' asks Bekhuis. 'Sport is the first thing people drop, giving way to even more sedentary behaviour'. But why is this so harmful?

Rest rusts

We speak of sedentary behaviour when energy use does not surpass the resting metabolic rate much (Mulier Instiuut). 'You could say that your body sleeps while you are awake,' explains Bekhuis. 'Many body processes that should actually be running at full speed thus come to a near standstill. Consequences include a lower metabolism, physical fatigue, difficulty falling asleep and an increased risk of health problems. So rest rusts. We also see in our research that young adults who do meet the exercise norm are less lonely and depressed, and are socially strong,' says Bekhuis.

What can parents do?

Bekhuis says it is vital for children to be taught from a young age that sports and exercise are fun, normal and healthy. 'Parents can show their children that they make permanent time to exercise, go to the supermarket by foot, or take their child to school by bike. When these children grow up themselves, they are more likely to take their children to school by bike and make time to exercise as well. That is why it's so hugely important for parents not to stop playing sports,' says Bekhuis.

Good sports education

Having fun in sports and seeing its benefits are essential. 'That's truthfully what our sports education needs to change for,' says Bekhuis. Bekhuis cites the Scandinavian sports model and the concept of physical literacy as a step in the right direction.

The Scandinavian sports model

In the Scandinavian sports model, children are not steered by results and achievements until age 16 but by playing and having fun. So they are not divided into different competition groups. Top athletes start this much later but also continue much longer than average top athletes.

Physical Literacy

During PE lessons, you are told why you should do sports and exercise and build your confidence to do so. Therefore, PE lessons are more than just how to shoot a ball or hold a hockey stick. Above all, you learn what suits you and how to create a pleasant sports situation. 'In the Netherlands, by the way, this is now in the first stages of being implemented', says Bekhuis.

Towards an active lifestyle

Bekhuis hopes that encouraging sport and an active lifestyle starts nine months before a child is born. If the GGD, child health centres, communicate the importance of an active lifestyle even then, it will push parents in the right direction to set a good example for their children. That way, we can beat the sedentary epidemic and protect our health and future generations.

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Behaviour, Upbringing, Health & Healthcare