Obesity rates rising as kids in Japan spend more time watching videos: sports agency

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TOKYO — Obesity rates are at record highs among Japan’s fifth graders and second-year junior high school boys as elementary and junior high school students in the country are spending more time watching videos, a test by the Japan Sports Agency has revealed.

An academic 2022 physical fitness and motor skills test was conducted between April and July last year on a total of approximately 1.9 million fifth-grade elementary school students and second-year junior high school students at all of Japan’s national, public and private institutions.

As a result, the total points scored in eight sporting events, which included a 50-meter dash and a standing long jump, marked a record low for both elementary school and middle school students since the test began in the 2008 school year.

The test also examined changes in lifestyle habits with a questionnaire. The proportion of children who spend 4 or more hours a day on “screen time” — watching TV or using smartphones for purposes other than studying — was 27.1% among fifth grade boys, 22% for fifth grade girls, 28.3% for second-year middle school boys, and 26.1% for second-year middle school girls, all of which were up from the previous year. In addition, fewer children were eating breakfast and sleeping 8 or more hours a day, indicating a disruption in their “life rhythm.”

The agency considers that the decline in physical fitness is due to changes in lifestyle that have kept children away from physical activity, and that the coronavirus pandemic has spurred this trend.

The percentage of children who spend a total of 7 or more hours a week on physical activity has not returned to pre-pandemic levels in each age group, and even among fifth grade boys, who showed the greatest improvement from the academic 2021 results, the percentage was 50.1%, about 5 percentage points below the 2017 figure.

On the other hand, 14.5% of fifth grade boys were obese, up 1.4 points from the academic 2021 survey, as were 9.8% of fifth grade girls, up 1 point. Regarding middle schoolers, second-year boys had a 11.4% obesity rate, up 1.4 points. Obesity rates for all groups except female second-year junior high students were at record highs.

The agency speculates that one of the reasons for the decline in exercise time and physical fitness is that the habit of wearing masks has taken root amid the pandemic, and children tended to avoid hard physical exercise because they found it difficult to breathe while exercising with their masks on. While the agency has been informing schools through local boards of education and other bodies since 2020 that it is unnecessary to wear masks in physical education classes, there have been numerous cases of schools having students exercise while wearing masks due to concerns about the risk of infection.

However, even when the pandemic is over and children return to their normal lives, a dramatic improvement in physical fitness cannot be expected. Takahiro Nakano, a professor at Chukyo University’s School of Health and Sport Sciences, who was involved in the analysis of the test, noted that the decline in total physical fitness scores has been a trend since around 2019, and stressed, “The effects of the coronavirus pandemic cannot be ignored, but they are not the only cause.”

In recent years, the structure of children’s daily life has changed, and Nakano said that children’s lives now include time for non-sports lessons and looking at modern devices.

“In addition to promoting the importance of playing sports in their daily lives, we need to think about how to let children secure time for exercise in their lives,” he added.

(Japanese original by Yongho Lee, Tokyo City News Department)