Fewer than half of mothers meet recommended exercise levels, study finds

FILE - A mother and child stop to choose fruit and vegetables from the shelves outside a shop in Bromley town center on Feb. 3, 2020, in London, England. (Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images)

Exercise offers a number of benefits, including coping with the daily challenges of being a parent. But new research suggests that fewer than half of mothers meet the recommended daily levels of physical activity

The amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity was even less, on average, for mothers with younger children or multiple kids. 

The study, published on Nov. 16 in PLOS ONE, was conducted by a team from the University of Cambridge and the University of Southampton in the U.K. The researchers analyzed data from 848 women who participated in the U.K. Southampton Women's Survey and wore accelerometers to assess their levels of activity. 

"It is perhaps not unexpected that mothers who have young children or several children engage in less intense physical activity, but this is the first study that has quantified the significance of this reduction," Professor Keith Godfrey from the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Centre and the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, said in a statement. 

"More needs to be done by local government planners and leisure facility providers to support mothers in engaging in physical activity," Godfrey added.

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Study: Less than 50% of mothers meet recommended physical activity

The women, who were between the ages of 20 and 34, were recruited between 1998 and 2002 and followed up over subsequent years. 

Women with school-aged children did, on average, around 26 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day, whereas mothers with only younger children — those ages 4 years or under — managed around 18 minutes per day, on average.

Having more than one child meant mothers managed only around 21 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day, on average, according to the study. 

Interestingly, mothers with multiple children all under 5 years old did more light-intensity activity than those with children of school age, the team found.

Fewer 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.

Exercise, particularly when it is moderate to vigorous, has several noted health benefits. Being physically active can improve brain health and mood, help manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve one’s ability to do everyday activities, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states

"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," said Dr. Kathryn Hesketh, from the MRC epidemiology unit at the University of Cambridge.

Moms do manage more physical activity when children go to school, Hesketh said.

"There are a number of possible reasons why this might be the case, including more opportunities to take part in higher-intensity activities with their children, you may return to active commuting, or feel more comfortable using time to be active alone," Hesketh suggested.

Evidence suggests physical activity can help parents cope with the daily challenges of being a parent and strengthen relationships with children if they are active together. Rachel Simpson, a Ph.D. student in the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, stressed that there are clear benefits, "both short term and long term" from exercising more. 

"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," Simpson said.

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This story was reported from Cincinnati.