UKZN co-led study shows improvement in South African children’s physical activity

From left: Dr Feyisayo Adeola Odunitan-Wayas, Professor Vicki Lambert and Professor Rowena Naidoo (UKZN’s Discipline of Biokinetics, Exercise and Leisure Sciences), who co-led the HAKSA 2022 report.

From left: Dr Feyisayo Adeola Odunitan-Wayas, Professor Vicki Lambert and Professor Rowena Naidoo (UKZN’s Discipline of Biokinetics, Exercise and Leisure Sciences), who co-led the HAKSA 2022 report.

Published Dec 1, 2022


The Healthy Active Kids South Africa (HAKSA) 2022 report has indicated that the overall physical activity of South African children has improved.

Co-led by Professor Rowena Naidoo from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Discipline of Biokinetics, Exercise and Leisure Sciences, the report indicates that children’s physical activity moved up to a B grade, despite the global Covid-19 pandemic - placing the country ahead of the nearly 50 other nations in the Global Matrix 4.0.

The report card is the sixth in the series since 2007. It is one of 57 country reports from six continents that are part of the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance (AHKGA).

The South African national evaluation was performed in parallel with the global initiative. Naidoo brought together more than 20 academics from eight higher education institutions to reach a consensus on the 10 physical activity indicators that comprise the Global Matrix 4.0.

The global report revealed that modern lifestyles - increased digital screen time, growing urbanisation, and increased automation of previously manual tasks - are contributing to a pervasive yet unequally distributed public health problem.

“The Global Matrix 4.0 represents the largest compilation of information to date on indicators related to the physical activity of children and adolescents - and the data shows a failing grade,” said Professor Mark Tremblay, President of the AHKGA and senior scientist at the CHEO Research Institute in Canada.

In comparison with the rest of the world, South African children were top with 15% for overall levels of physical activity and the top 7% for physical fitness, with fitness moving up from a C grade in 2018 to a B grade, suggesting that at least 75% of the country’s children are active. However, South African children were placed 45th out of 57 countries with regards to participation in organised sport, and 15th for sedentary behaviour, with insufficient data for active play.

“South Africa scores well for active travel, coming 10th, with 60% to 66% of children and youth using active transport to and from school and for other journeys,” said Naidoo.

“However, safety remains a concern as pedestrian fatalities are the leading cause of death due to injury in children under the age of 15.”

An innovation introduced by the South African group was a report card for the same indicators to be completed by high school youth, keeping in mind the Unicef tagline, “nothing about us without us”.

In the first round involving KwaZulu-Natal youth, nearly 70% graded overall physical activity with an A or B, while less than 50% of those surveyed felt that organised sport deserved a similar grade. These scores align with the consensus findings, although 60% of adolescents gave the physical activity environment in schools an A or B endorsement.

Professor Verusia Chetty (Discipline of Physiotherapy) was also part of the team who presented the report results at the International Society for Physical Activity and Health (ISPAH) Congress held in Abu Dhabi towards the end of October.

Chetty and her colleagues have proposed a bespoke framework - Re-ACTION - designed to improve the grade based on a number of identified priorities from the Global Matrix 4.0, lessons learned from other countries, and recommendations from the World Health Organization Global Action Plan for Physical Activity (GAPPA).

“It is clear that an integrated approach is needed to help to improve South Africa’s indicator scores. The Re-ACTION strategic plan is recommended: Reassess at regular intervals; Co-create strategies and solutions; Train educators and implementers; Implement to sustain and scale; Organise adequate resources, infrastructure and policy; and Network, mobilise and recruit stakeholders for sustainability,” said Chetty.