As summer wanes and back-to-school season approaches, kids may be cringing at the thought of getting back to long stretches at a school desk. But can the school environment actually help kids increase their activity level? A new study published in Preventive Medicine suggests it can.
The study on 1,100 elementary and middle school students measured the effectiveness of a government program called HEROES, which was developed to increase physical activity during the school day.
The schools restructured their physical activity classes to focus more on movement than sports to ramp up active participation. Some schools added ten-minute bursts of physical activity into regular classroom time. Nearly all participating schools started before-school or after-school walking programs, adding another 15-20 active minutes to the school day.
The researchers gathered information about physical activity level through online 24-hour recall surveys asking what activities they did the day before. At the end of the study they found an increase of 6% in both moderate and vigorous activity (the kind that really gets the heart pumping and the lungs working) among students at schools that incorporated the most HEROES activities compared to schools that integrated fewer activities.
These promising findings highlight the role schools can play in instilling healthy habits like regular exercise from a young age. Being active reduces risk of cancer, type II diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions that threaten quality years of adult life. Some research even suggests that being active may improve academic performance.
The authors were not able to discern whether the students actually met the federal guideline of at least 60 minutes a day of moderate or vigorous physical activity. Their surveys asked about how often they were active, not how long. Another limitation: one in three kids dropped out before the 18 months were up. These children tended to be of lower socioeconomic status, measured by participation in the free and reduced school meal program.
This report out of Indiana University follows on the heels of last week’s encouraging CDC report that obesity rates are down in lower-income preschool-aged children in 19 states. The shadow side: CDC found no change in obesity rates in the other 24 states included in the report, meaning that our work to reduce and prevent childhood obesity in America is far from over.
Future studies and program initiatives should address this issue, put particular focus on vigorous activity as it has been shown to decline across the board as children get older.
The takeaway message for parents, schools, and anyone who cares about kids: promoting physical activity – especially the heart-pumping kind – is a true public health priority.
Arissa Anderson is an MPH/RD candidate from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and dietetic intern with the American Institute for Cancer Research.
Connect with Arissa on Twitter @ArissaAnderson.