November 29, 2017
By: Jacqueline Mills
The Lancet recently published a study which found the number of obese children and adolescents worldwide has increased ten-fold over the past 40 years. It is clear that some sort of intervention is necessary to counter this alarming trend.
Although there have been changes in schools to accommodate such exceptionalities, such as having yoga balls in lieu of chairs in classrooms, the school day for elementary students is based largely on a model of sedentary learning. It is not just overweight children who require more movement throughout the school day, all children could benefit from more activity. Children are expected to sit and learn for 90-120 minutes at a time. Most schools throughout Canada are required to incorporate 20 minutes of daily physical activity into their curriculum. Twenty minutes of physical activity during the school day falls well short of the 60 minutes recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
With our increasingly immobile lifestyles, perhaps the only way to ensure children are receiving enough exercise is within the school setting. Children spend approximately 6-7 hours in school 180 days of the year. Implementing increased physical activity in school between or during classes is the easiest and most effective way to reach all children.
Parents may have concerns that physical activity will take away from valuable time that could be spent on learning academic subjects. However, research has repeatedly shown that increased physical activity throughout the school day, as well as brief physical activity breaks (between 5-20 minutes), can increase cognitive skills, attitudes, academic behaviour and academic achievement. Another study has found that these brief physical activity breaks can also increase attention in young students. Based on this information, it could be said that students would be able to absorb class material more quickly and efficiently with increased physical activity.
It is also well known that physical activity improves mental health. Being physically active as a child may predict how active a child becomes as an adult. In adulthood, physical activity is especially important as a preventative measure against many chronic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and various types of cancer. Increased childhood physical activity may, in turn, increase the number of adults partaking in physical activity, thereby decreasing the burden of disease on individuals and our health care system.
Improving diets, reducing sedentary time, and increasing physical activity for children are fundamental in preventing obesity in childhood. Although there are many educational programs throughout Canada that promote physical activity to children, programs and equipment can be expensive. The cost and time associated with traveling to attend programs may also deter or discourage people. It is also difficult to ensure all children are active outside of the school environment. Financial and accessibility barriers to exercise programs like organized sports can conspire to limit physical activity. The first steps toward reducing the risks that come childhood obesity must be taken in the classroom.