Children are physically active for barely half of the 60 minutes a day the Government says they need to keep them fit and healthy, according to new research from the University of Worcester's Institute of Sport and Exercise Science. Yet parents believe they average 271 active minutes a day – more than eight times the amount they actually achieve.
Professor Peter Helms, from the Department of Child Health at Aberdeen University, warns of the consequences: "We're becoming like America. For the first time, we're seeing mature onset diabetes in obese children." Other research shows that unfit children are six times more likely to show early signs of heart disease. But active children have been found to have less body fat, sleep better and have stronger muscles and bones. Studies also show exercise teaches team-building skills, boosts moods and enhances academic performance. So how, in the age of TVs, computers and pressures on parental time, can we get our children moving again?
Ditch the car and walk wherever possible – to school, the shops, the park. You save petrol and just 20 minutes will give their heart (and yours) a good workout. Little tots can manage between 20 and 30 minutes at a steady pace, provided you give them water and let them rest.
"Or get them to bring roller skates, scooters or skateboards," Adrian Voce, the director of Play England, says. "Don't forget that children are more likely to play if they're with friends, so why not invite them along, too?" Set them a challenge – sprint to the tree, skip to the lamp post, power walk to the letter box and so on.
Raining? So what? Children love puddles and, armed with waterproofs and an umbrella, you'll have the added bonus of having parks and open spaces practically to yourself. "We take loads of children out in the rain as part of Forest School and it's only the helpers who look daunted by the weather," Fiona Danks, co-author of Run Wild, says. "Parents are fine with children getting muddy on the rugby pitch, yet they often freak out about a bit of rain."
Lead by example
It's no good telling your children to get out more if you're a couch potato yourself, Helms says. "Children emulate their parents much more than people realise and our exercise habits start becoming established practically from the time we can walk."
If you are overweight or obese, your child's chances of being overweight as an adult are 80 per cent greater than those of a child whose parents are of normal weight. If, on the other hand, you keep yourself in shape, then your children are six times more likely to be physically active.
But before you grab your child to join you for a weekend jog in the park, remember children are not miniature adults and their physiological responses to exercise differ from those of adults. Their natural form of play consists of short bursts of energy punctuating more languorous passages. So go to the park and play stuck-in-the-mud or witches and wizards and let them take short breaks to play on the swings.
"Share your own play memories," Voce says. "Whether it was a game of tag, rounders or piggy-in-the-middle, think about how you used to play."
Join the club
Studies show that older children are far more likely to take part in sports if their friends are joining in. Sign up for after-school and holiday clubs such as gymnastics, swimming, trampolining and tennis.
"Holiday courses are the perfect solution for parents, many of whom work, to ensure their children have a fun and active summer. These courses and camps can help children with life skills, too – socialising, learning new skills and independence," Matthew Yianni, the head coach at Sporting Steps, says.
But some children aren't as sporty as others and shouldn't be pushed into it. Try things out first to find out what motivates them and, where possible, get them to pick their own activities. Studies show that if children feel they have ownership of an idea, they get much more involved and are far more likely to enjoy it. "Keep it compelling," Yianni says. "If exercise looks or sounds like hard work, your kids won't want to know."
Don't lose heart if nothing springs to mind. Teenage girls can be particularly hard to please, Helms says, but you just need to be imaginative – disco dancing, drama, horse riding and cheerleading all count as exercise.
Make TV time more active
TV doesn't have to be the enemy. Just set a limit on how long children sit in front of it – one hour a day is plenty until age 10, moving towards two hours as they hit their teens. And make them earn it, Dax Moy, a personal trainer, says. "Want an hour in front of the telly? Then do something active for 30 minutes." Even when your children are watching TV, there are ways to make it more active, he says. Put a mini-trampoline in the room or put on one of the many exercise DVDs available, appealing to everyone from toddlers up. Alternatively, try Nintendo's Wii Fit tennis, golf, football, snooker, aerobics or dance, all of which work on flexibility, fitness, balance and co-ordination and are endorsed by the Department of Health as a "great way" to exercise.
The Kinect for Xbox 360 is another good investment. The camera uses a depth sensor and camera to track your full body in 3D, allowing you to control and interact with the fitness games without a controller or remote. Meanwhile, the Playstation Move Motion Controller includes titles like Sports Champions and SingStar Dance that will get your kids and their friends using your living room like a sports hall.
Make the most of your garden
Gardens are great for disguising exercise as fun. Get a trampoline or attach a basketball net to the side of your house. "Invest in active toys," Voce says. "Classic toys like hula hoops, pogo sticks, skipping ropes and space hoppers are still firm favourites." Swingball is a good way of getting them used to a racket and treasure hunts are a fun way of getting them to run around.
Iain Reitze, co-founder of Prestige Boot Camp, advises placing various toys or objects around the garden, then timing your children as they run out to bring back each item before heading for the next one. "This will increase heart and lungs efficiency as well as burning calories," he says.
Make a circular assault course for things to jump over or crawl under, he says. Buckets with a broom across can be jumped over, a plank can be used to balance on, hoops to step in and pass over the body and a blanket to crawl under like a military camouflage net.
Use local spaces
A trip to the park can be great, even for older kids, now that many have outdoor gyms. Voce says that Play England has helped build 30 staffed adventure playgrounds, aimed at older children, across the country so far. "Research shows that if you give children any large space, they will exercise naturally," he says.
Let your children play in the local neighbourhood with friends and siblings, he says. "Children playing out in the street should not be seen as potentially antisocial behaviour waiting to happen."
Holidays and events
Children exercise twice as much on holiday as at home, according to research by Eurocamp and Netmums. Choose somewhere with no TV or opt for a holiday involving water. Studies show swimming works every muscle group in the body.
Activity holidays run by the likes of Eurocamp, Canvas Holidays and PGL are the Rolls-Royces of childrens' activity, Moy says, with pretty much every type of physical exercise going, including climbing, running, team sports, kayaking, assault courses and hiking.
No plans to go away? To celebrate the national day for play on 3 August, more than 900 events are being held across the UK to encourage families to get outdoors and play. Visit www. playday.org.uk for details.
Change4Life's The Really Big Summer Adventure – a six-week long initiative designed to inspire children, parents and carers – is also worth looking into, with ideas, offers and competitions to get the family up and about without breaking the bank.