You’re less likely to exercise if you have young children – we must make it easier

We all know physical activity – particularly when it’s moderate to vigorous – has many health benefits, decreasing the risk of a wide range of illnesses from cancer to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as helping maintain a healthy weight and mental health.

Evidence also suggests physical activity can help people cope with the daily challenges of being a parent and strengthen relationships with children if they’re active together.

But unsurprisingly, parents tend to be less active than non-parents.

Apparently fewer than half of mums meet the recommended levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity – and mothers of younger children manage to do the least, researchers at the universities of Cambridge and Southampton found.

I’m not at all surprised. Caring for your children is hard work and it’s difficult to cope with the all-consuming responsibilities.

To examine how children of different ages affected the amount of physical activity mothers managed to do, the researchers analysed data from 848 women who took part in the UK Southampton Women’s Survey. Aged 20-34 years, they were recruited between 1998 and 2002 and followed up over subsequent years. They were given accelerometers to assess their levels of activity.

Women with school-age children did on average around 26 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day, whereas mothers with younger children (aged four or under) managed around 18 minutes per day.

Having more than one child meant mothers managed only around 21 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day, but interestingly, mums with more children, all under five years old, did more light intensity activity than those with ­children of school age. That’s called housework! Meanwhile 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 Cambridge University 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.

“Exercise is often therefore one of the first things to fall by the wayside, and so most of the physical activity mums manage to do seems to be of a lower intensity.”

Rachel Simpson, a PhD student with the Medical Research Council, added: “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.”