Learning how to run, jump, kick and catch are skills many children are struggling to accomplish, with major implications for their general health, according to a landmark study led by the University of Sydney.


"If a child has not mastered what you might call the building blocks of physical activities they will not have the skill or confidence to do them. This study shows that children lacking these skills have lower levels of overall cardio-respiratory fitness and are more likely to be overweight or obese," said Dr Louise Hardy from the School of Public Health.


"There is an overall decline in children's ability to perform these skills at the appropriate age. We talk a lot about how much exercise kids need to do and the ideal hour-a-day target but this study suggests we might need to go back to basics and teach them the skills they need for a whole range of physical activities."


Dr Hardy is the lead author of the research, in collaboration with the University of Wollongong and Southern Cross University, which has just been published in Pediatrics.


The study used data from the 2010 NSW Schools Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey to assess the 'fundamental movement skills' of over 8000 primary and high school children aged five to 16 years.


By Year 2 of primary school (age seven) children should have mastered skills such as leaping, running and jumping but the analysis showed the majority students had not demonstrated mastery of those skills. By high school students had improved but were still not competent across all skills.


The results showed a gender difference. Girls were quicker to learn movement skills such as running or leaping which are associated with dancing and gymnastics, while boys demonstrated higher mastery of object-control skills used in ball sports such as kicking and catching.


There was a clear and consistent link between low levels of skill and inadequate cardio-respiratory fitness. This is a significant concern because low fitness is associated with an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.


"It is a common misconception that children 'naturally' learn these skills and those of throwing, kicking and catching but this research shows that they need to be taught and practised. It's been estimated to take from between four and 10 hours for children to accomplish each of these skills," Dr Hardy said.


"There are two key reasons for the poor performance on these skills. There is a lack of physical education teachers in primary schools and there are not enough parents kicking a ball around with their kids."


The introduction of programs in schools that focused on teaching these skills would be one way to address the issue Dr Hardy suggests.


"Not learning this full range of skills at an early age means these children are more likely to become inactive adolescents and adults which has major implications for their future fitness and health and the ability of the health system to cope with that outcome."