2024-05-24| ChinaPolicySpecial

New Regulatory Measures in China A First in the Fight Against Sedentary Behavior in Children

by Bernice Lottering
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China's first of it’s kind regulations effectively combat sedentary behavior in school children, reducing daily physical inactivity by over 45 minutes. Restrictions on online gaming and screen time recommendations top the list of solutions.

A study conducted by the University of Bristol found that new regulations introduced by the Chinese government have effectively reduced the amount of time school children spend being inactive. These regulations include restrictions on online gaming companies targeting children, limits on the amount of homework that teachers can assign, and restrictions on when private tutoring businesses can offer lessons. As a result, children are spending less total time being sedentary and less time on various sedentary activities, improving their physical and mental well-being. The implemented measures resulted in a 13.8% reduction in daily sedentary time overall. This reduction translates to over 45 minutes less each day that children spend participating in physically inactive activities.

What is Sedentary Behavior, and Why is it a Growing Concern?

Sedentary behavior among school-aged children and adolescents, prevalent in China and globally, imposes significant social, economic, and health burdens. It is characterized by low energy expenditure while sitting, reclining, or lying down, and linked to adverse effects on mental health, cognitive development, academic performance, quality of life, and physical health. In China, over 60% of students reportedly use part of their sleep time for activities like playing mobile games and watching TV, while 27% engage in homework or other learning activities, impacting their health negatively. Additionally, academic tasks like homework and tutoring contribute significantly to sedentary behavior, with Chinese adolescents spending an average of 14 hours per week on homework, the highest among countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated this issue, particularly affecting children and adolescents.

Hence, in response to the increasing sedentary behavior and following demands from parents, the Chinese government introduced nationwide regulations in 2021. These regulations limit the amount of homework teachers can assign, restrict the times and durations for online gaming, and control when tutoring businesses can operate. A novel study investigated the effect of these regulations on sedentary behavior, providing evidence for application on a global scale.

Lead researcher Dr. Bai Li, from the Center for Exercise, Nutrition, and Health Sciences at the University’s School for Policy Studies, commented, “The findings are promising as this form of regulatory intervention spanning various sectors is unprecedented. Traditionally, children and their caregivers have been educated and encouraged to initiate behavioral changes, with limited success. These regulatory measures now place responsibility on online gaming companies, schools, and private tutoring firms to adhere to guidelines. This alternative approach seems more effective by focusing on enhancing the environment where children and adolescents reside, thus promoting healthier lifestyles.”

Addressing Online Gaming Culture with Screen Time Recommendations to Improve Children’s Health

The research findings, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, are significant for shaping future policies and strategies worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) has encouraged such system-wide policies to address sedentary behavior more effectively, and as such, China’s pioneering regulations show promise in improving the physical and mental well-being of children around the globe. 

The study analyzed matched surveillance data from over 7,000 primary and secondary school students in 2020 and 2021, both before and after the implementation of regulations. Here, the research team found significant changes in sedentary behavior. Specifically, the study, which was conducted across urban and rural areas in Southern China’s Guangxi region, found that after implementing regulations, students reduced daily sedentary time by an average of 46 minutes. Urban students experienced a more pronounced decrease. Daily screen-viewing time decreased by 6.4%, equivalent to 10 minutes. Post-regulation, students were 20% more likely to adhere to the recommended screen time limit. Also, compliance with the Chinese government’s homework time recommendations nearly tripled, indicating improved compliance with homework guidelines. However, this likelihood varied with age, decreasing from primary to secondary school students.

Unprecedented Regulatory Intervention Seems to be a Plausible Solution

Dr. Li, who oversees a Master of Science Program focused on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Public Health, suggests that the government regulations likely played a role in reducing sedentary behavior among children and young people in the studied region of China. However, she emphasizes the need for further research to determine if similar interventions would yield comparable results in other regions of the country and internationally.

Prof. Boyd Swinburn, a renowned expert in Global Health and Obesity Prevention, highlights the significance of the study’s findings. He notes that while most efforts to reduce sedentary behavior have traditionally relied on educational approaches, the regulatory measures implemented in this study offer a unique perspective and underscore the impact of the contextual environment on behavior.

“This is a fascinating study because most interventions to reduce sedentary behaviors have relied on educational approaches rather than the regulatory measures used here.

“While achieving similar regulations in countries outside China may be a challenge, the impact of the regulations does show how sensitive sedentary behaviors are to the prevailing environmental conditions and rules.” sedentary lifestyle, school children, online gaming culture, online gaming behavior, physical inactivity, risk of physical inactivity, mental well-being, children’s health, screen time recommendation, What is sedentary behavior, What is an example of sedentary behavior, how does physical inactivity cause cardiovascular disease, what can physical inactivity lead to

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