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Sleep problems contributing to childhood obesity

CSP press release published on 24 October 2009

As clocks go back, regular exercise is vital to burn calories and aid sleep say physiotherapists

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) is encouraging parents to overcome problems with their children’s sleep, which can often be disturbed by the clocks going back, (Sunday 25 October at 1am) by ensuring their children are physically active. Lack of sleep has been linked to higher rates of obesity in children through increasing levels of the ‘hunger’ hormone ghrelin. At the same time the hormone that suppresses appetite, leptin, decreases when children get insufficient sleep and the stress hormone, cortisol, increases causing the body to make more fat. (1) (2) (3) The message from physiotherapists is that quality sleep is key to good health and regular exercise is an important factor in making sure children sleep well in addition to burning off excess calories. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy is running the `Move for Health Kids’ campaign (4) to encourage families to be more active. Physiotherapists are keen to ensure that children don’t jeopardise their health because there are less opportunities for outdoor exercise as the hours of daylight get shorter and it gets darker earlier. Hectic lives and the use of mobile phones, computers and televisions in bedrooms mean that children, as well as adults, have difficulty going to sleep and are sleeping less than children of even a generation ago. (1) (3) (5) Added to this the sleep disturbance that can be caused by the clocks going back means encouraging children to take up more physical activity is even more important, physiotherapists suggest. Sammy Margo (6), chartered physiotherapist, author of The Good Sleep Guide and the forthcoming Good Sleep Guide for Kids says:

"Many children appear to be over-stimulated, over-worked and over-committed and at the same time under-exercised. All these factors affect sleep, which in turn is a factor in the worrying rates of childhood obesity in the UK. Making sure your child exercises for at least an hour a day, giving them healthy food, creating a restful sleeping environment and a bedtime ritual means that your child will be ready to sleep once they’ve been tucked in and it’s time to turn out the light. And a good night’s sleep means that your child will wake up refreshed and ready to take on the world."

Government reports show that at least a third of children are not doing enough regular physical activity. (7) Approximately a third of children in the UK are overweight or obese (8) but only 1 in 5 parents know how much exercise their children should be taking. (9) While parents think their children get around two and a half hours exercise per day, the reality is they are only physically active for less than 30 minutes. (10) Not only do people who are sleep deprived eat more, they tend to consume more sweet and starchy foods that convert easily into fat. (11) On top of that the production of HGH (human growth hormone), which is needed to help break down fat, is also inhibited when the body lacks sleep and so cannot function as well. (1) While regular exercise can aid sleep and burn off excess calories it can also significantly reduce the chances of developing coronary heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. (7) The clocks going back can disturb children’s sleep patterns and in addition, today’s children experience a number of sleep related problems.

  • 14% of children aged between 3 and 10 experience nightmares or night terrors (12)
  • 10% of children sleepwalk (12)

The growth of sedentary leisure activities also exacerbates the problem. A recent study of 500 children showed that for every hour a child is sitting - whether watching TV or reading a book- it takes an extra three minutes for them to get to sleep. (5) So making sure children are physically active and not too sedentary will help them to feel healthily tired and to sleep well throughout the night. Sammy Margo adds "As well as weight, lack of sleep can affect the immune system, growth and bone development, cognitive abilities and performance at school in addition to making children cranky and irritable." To aid parents in helping their children meet their 60 minute activity target per day, chartered physiotherapists suggest breaking activity down into more manageable 10-15 minute chunks. CSP’s new ‘Fit for the Future’ leaflet has tips to help families build more physical activity into daily life: download the leaflet. Ends For further information or to arrange an interview with Sammy Margo, please call Ann Stirling at the CSP press office on 020 7306 1111 or 07939 153513 (CSP out of hours mobile numbers 07786 332197 / 07900 160 349). The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy is the professional, educational and trade union body for the UK’s 48,000 chartered physiotherapists, physiotherapy assistants and physiotherapy students.

Notes and references

  1. Sleep and the epidemic of obesity in children and adults. Van Cauter E, Knutson KL. European Journal of Endocrinology 2008 December
  2. Nocturnal ghrelin, ACTH, GH and cortisol secretion after sleep deprivation in humans. Schussler P, Uhr M, Ising M, Weikel JC, Schmid DA, Held K, Mathias S, Steiger A. Psychoneuroendocrinolgy 2006 Sep
  3. Associations between sleep loss and increased risk of obesity and diabetes. Knutson KL, Van Cauter E Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 2008
  4. The campaign report Fit for the Future - how healthy and active are our children? was published by the CSP on 23 September. The report is available as a free PDF download.
  5. Falling asleep: the determinants of sleep latency. Nixon GM, Thompson JMD, Han DY et al. Archives of Diseases in Childhood July 2009
  6. Sammy Margo’s new book The Good Sleep Guide for Kids (Vermilion, March 2010) can be pre-ordered on the Rbooks website.
  7. Department of Health (2004). At least five a week. Evidence of the impact of physical activity and its relationship to health. A report from the Chief Medical Officer. London.
  8. The NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet in England, February 2009. Childhood BMI Statistics. Welsh Assembly Government (June 2006). In Perspective. Food and Fitness. Crown. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (January 2007). Northern Ireland Health And Social Wellbeing Survey 2005/06 Topline Results - Childhood Obesity
  9. Survey was conducted by Opinium Research for CSP through an online poll of 2084 British adults between 9 and 14 April 2009. Results have been weighted to nationally representative criteria.
  10. Newcastle University website: Children's physical activity levels hugely overestimated (10 September 2008)
  11. various sources including American Dietetic Association and Elissa Epel Ph D, University of California, Dept. of Psychiatry
  12. various sources including Sleepwalking, John Mersch, MD, FAAP; Dr Dianne Gumley, Great Ormond Street Hospital; Night Terrors, Vincent, Iannelli, 2003; Prevalence and Genetics of Sleepwalking, Hublin C, Kapri J et al. Neurology 1997
  13. The Sleep Council in Britain recommends that toddlers sleep for around 12 hours a day and primary school children between 5 and 11 should normally have from 10 to 11.5 hours sleep a night.

Move for Health Kids

Move for Health Kids is the CSP's plan to get children moving. Move for Health is a partner of Change4Life - the nationwide movement to help everyone eat well, move more and live longer. Visit the website or call 0300 123 4567 for more information. Pleae note that the CSP’s Move for Health campaign is in support of 'Health Challenge Wales', the 'Take Life On, One Step at a Time' campaign in Scotland, and 'Get a life, get active' campaign in Northern Ireland. See more on these related campaigns.

Recommended levels of exercise

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, in line with the Chief Medical Officer, recommends that children and young people should have at least one hour of moderate intensity physical exercise every day. (Moderate intensity means that children should be out of breath for some of the time). Exercise should be varied to enable children to use different muscles, improve their bone health and develop flexibility. Exercise can involve planned sports activities at school but also includes play during school breaks or at home, walking to and from school, swimming or games.


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