A data-driven solution to get children on the move

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Children increasingly seek the comfort and entertainment of television, tablets and smartphones rather than playing outside. This reduction in physical activity has accelerated over the last few decades and has detrimental effects for children later in life. They are the future, so studying their development and lifestyle gives us a forecast of where we are heading. Are we moving towards a sedentary population? And if so, how can we alter our course?

It is well known that physical exercise has many beneficial effects for our health. According to The World Health Organization (WHO), physical activity in children and adolescents improves, among other things, cardiometabolic health, bone health and mental health, and reduces the risk of being overweight or obese. Despite these advantages, physical activity in children keeps decreasing while rates of childhood obesity are skyrocketing. The WHO reported an increased prevalence of overweight children and adolescents (including those who are obese) from just 8% in 1990 to 20% in 2022. To stop this trend, it’s important to focus on preventive measures. “With kids, you can detect beforehand who is going down that road and intervene instead of waiting for problems to happen,” says Lode Goossens, founder of Hylyght, a diverse data platform offering expert tools for injury prevention, return-to-sport screening, talent identification, and following growth and maturity in young athletes. With their medical and preventive background, they have a strong motivation to inspire policymakers and children with the aim of increasing activity in this young population. “In essence, we find relevant information, give meaning to data and present it in a simple and user-friendly way.” says Goossens.

Moving toward a data-driven policy

For the last three years, Hylyght has collected data from various schools in the Netherlands. In 2023, 50,000 kids participated in questionnaires and physical exercises to gather information regarding their movement, including their motor skills, their ability to swim, if they play outside, if they are part of a sports club, and more. Physical education teachers use this information to plan their lessons and to guide children in becoming more active after school. They can, for example, motivate their pupils to participate in a sports club. In addition, policymakers are being informed of the results, giving them the opportunity to act effectively. “It’s up to the government or municipality to make sure that there is an option to play outside, for example, making sure it is safe and that there’s proper infrastructure. So, it’s a great tool to collect feedback from kids and really try to trigger interventions that matter,” states Goossens. Not only are the interventions themselves important, tracking their effect cannot be overlooked. “A lot of people have really good interventions and they try to get kids to move, but no one is really measuring the effect of the intervention and that’s something that we put first,” says Goossens.

Also, UNESCO is well aware of the power of data. With Fit for Life, they aim to address global issues such as physical inactivity, mental health, and inequality through sport. By making better use of existing data, filling in knowledge gaps and supporting policy translation, they want to encourage effective funding in the sector and create awareness about how sport can drive societal transformation.

From exceptional athletes to average movers

These large-scale, longitudinal studies allow for the identification of risk factors for future health issues, and of predictors for future top athletes. It seems, however, that exceptional is not so exceptional anymore. “We see that the general level of motor and coordination skills is declining. It has been like that for decades,” explains Goossens. “So, on average, children are not as skilled as they were five years ago. The exceptional movers of today were the average movers of 30 years ago.”

According to the 2018 Flemish report card on physical activity for children and youth, only 6.9% of the 6- to 9-year-olds met the recommended standard of at least 60-minutes moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day, decreasing even further to 2.6% for the 10- to 17-year-olds. Of the 6- to 9-year-olds, 69.3% reported being part of a sports club, reducing to 67% for the 11- to 15-year-olds. “There’s a drop out of children doing sport starting at the age of 12,” says Goossens, “because, at least in Belgium and the Netherlands, that’s when you go to high school and you get more homework. Parents have the attitude of ‘school comes first’, so they don’t encourage their children to play sports as much.” These numbers highlight the severity of the situation and paint a picture of the future we are moving towards.

Choosing a tailor-made sport

Fortunately, there are a lot of interventions which can motivate children and young people to put on their running shoes. The Sport2Be project from the Collibri foundation by Colruyt group tries to increase access to quality sports activities for young people in deprived neighborhoods in Belgium. They organize various local activities including football, basketball, boxing and dance which are free to participate in, allowing young people to explore which sport fits them best and optimize valuable soft skills such as teamwork and commitment.

To get younger children out of their chairs, the GenMove application, a WHO initiative, motivates children to move through gamification. By combining AI with movement tracking, the app creates an interactive environment for children to execute a range of different movements and improve their physical skills.

With sports orientation, Hylyght tries to help children find a sport that fits their physical profile and personal interests, much like finding the right-sized shoe. “We want to inspire kids and help them to think beyond popular sports. You can do more than just football” explains Goossens. “But it’s not just about inspiring, it’s also about reorientation.” A lot of children choose their sport based on convenience. If your father is a swimmer and you have a pool in your backyard, the chances are high you will become a swimmer. However, this does not mean that you are naturally a good swimmer or that you are passionate about it. “It’s not our goal to switch children around from sport to sport,” explains Goossens, “but if you’re unhappy in judo and you’re thinking of switching, then we believe that in the long term, it’s important to have some experience of success. You might end up being happier in a sport that you’re naturally good at.”

A data-scientist’s utopia

Currently, we are veering off course. But data-driven tools like the Hylyght platform and initiatives like UNESCO’s Fit for Life can help to create awareness around the problem and find tailored solutions. Qualitative data supports informed decision making for present and future interventions; this is where the potential of data vaults comes in. “We have a very utopian view of where we want to go,” says Goossens, “because children go to school, then to a sports club, and then to the physiotherapist etc. Although we know exactly that all this data is from the same child, we are not allowed to link it together due to GDPR regulations. What we would like to have is a data vault, where you are in charge of your own data.” This would mean that all the data from your whole lifespan regarding your sports orientation, the injuries you had, hospital visits etc., is gathered together and you get to decide who has access. “So, what is happening in healthcare and in healthtech, that’s what I would like to see for movement data as well, but we’re quite far from that. Technologically it’s all possible, but there are a lot of impracticalities.”

This data vault would also further help policymakers make informed decisions. The anonymous but linked data allows them to answer questions like why certain schools and neighborhoods excel or underperform, which infrastructure is still missing and how to effectively deploy limited resources. Using AI and machine learning can further enhance the data vault’s applicability by finding hidden patterns and making data more presentable and understandable by, for example, creating visualizations.

Even though data and technology have made us and our children more sedentary, they also carry a lot of potential to change our lives for the better. Being aware of this problem, and how it affects children, can help us get in shape for a better future.