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Letter: Sedentary schooling’s effects on learning and health

Inside a classroom.
Children spend most of their time in the classroom sitting down.

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 detrimental 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 school aged children (grades 1 to 8) is based on a model of sedentary learning. It is not just children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who require more movement throughout the school day — all children could benefit from more activity.

Children spend six or seven 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.

Children are expected to sit and learn for 90 to 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. With our ever-increasing sedentary lifestyles, perhaps the only way to ensure children are receiving enough exercise is within the school setting. 

Children spend six or seven 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 learning academic subjects. However, research has repeatedly shown that increased physical activity throughout the school day as well as brief physical activity breaks (between five and 20 minutes) can increase cognitive skills, attitudes, academic behaviour and academic achievement. Another study found that these brief physical activity breaks can also increase attention in young students. Based on these studies, you could logically assume that students would be able to cover class material more quickly and efficiently with increased physical activity.

It is also well known that physical activity improves physical and 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.

Together with improving diets, reducing sedentary time and increasing physical activity for children are fundamental for preventing obesity in childhood. Although there are many education programs throughout Canada that promote physical activity to children, programs and equipment can be expensive. The cost and time associated with travelling to attend programs may also deter or discourage people. It is also difficult to ensure all children are active outside of the school environment. In addition to financial and accessibility barriers, exercise programs are competing with increasing technology available to children. Popular activities outside of school are increasingly sedentary, such as videogames and using social media platforms such as Snapchat.

 

Jacqueline Mills

St. John’s

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