Just how much physical activity are children actually getting at school and in PE class?

Schools can be influential in getting kids to exercise more, but oftentimes are not
There’s been no shortage of coverage lately regarding the alarming rates of obesity in children and the lack of physical activity (PA) that plays a large part in it. According to statistics, most kids are exercising less and sitting more, and improving activity among school-age children has emerged as a strong public health priority. PA for children has been shown to decrease adiposity (fat-related tissue) in those who are overweight and enhance skeletal and cardiovascular health. Strong evidence supports moderate-to-vigorous PA (MVPA) as a means to reduce chronic disease risk factors for children, but even light PA (LPA) can also be beneficial. Since kids spend about 30 hours/week within their walls, school should serve as an ideal opportunity for getting them to increase PA, yet many schools fail to come through in this regard. Evidence suggests that curricular time devoted to physical education (PE) is declining, and consequently kids aren’t getting recommended amounts of PA. To better understand the PA habits of children, a study was created that sought to describe the amount of sedentary behavior (SED), LPA and MVPA undertaken by elementary school kids during a typical school day, and to compare these levels between girls and boys.

Large crop of children from nine schools given accelerometers to record PA
In order to get an accurate reading on kids’ physical behaviors, a sample of 380 children, ages 8-11, from nine different elementary schools were used. Each child was assessed for age, height and body mass index (BMI), and then provided with an accelerometer and directions on the proper way to wear them. Accelerometers are small devices used to measure the acceleration of an object or person, and children were instructed to wear them on their hips for five consecutive days. Children were also given a log sheet to record when accelerometers were on or off. Data collected from these accelerometers was then analyzed for patterns related to PA and matched up with school schedules to determine trends in SED, LPA and MVPA for the following groupings of time: 1) the whole school day, 2) regular class time, 3) recess, 4) lunch, and 5) PE class. Current guidelines set for school day PA are 30 min. of MVPA throughout the entire day, 40% of recess and lunch breaks in MVPA, and 50% of PE class in MVPA.

Kids aren’t getting enough PA during recess, lunch, PE class, and girls are less active
According to results, the only category in which most kids met the guidelines was for the whole school day, where more than 90% of children of both sexes performed at least 30 min. of MVPA per day. Conversely, in recess, only 16% of girls and 34% of boys met the guidelines, while during lunch, 17% of girls and 37% of boys met them. Most alarmingly, girls spent only 13% and boys spent 11% of their time in PE class engaged in MVPA, and less than 5% of all kids met the recommended guidelines for PE class. When comparing the PA levels of girls and boys, it was shown that girls accumulated less MVPA and more SED than boys in all categories other than PE class, and they also accumulated less LPA in classroom activity.

These findings reveal a great deal about the general habits of school-age children and PA, and the study points out some major flaws that need improvement. While more than 90% of children were getting the recommended 30 min. of MVPA/day, they were lacking in every other sub-sector, the most prevalent of which was PE class. Having kids spend only 11-13% of their PE class time engaged in MVPA, and for less than 5% of those kids to be meeting the recommended guidelines is a sad state of affairs and requires major school curricula alterations. Additionally, the failure to meet guidelines during lunch and recess should prompt a call to action in providing more opportunities for kids to get their PA in during school breaks. Findings regarding sex differences should also taken into consideration by school administrators, and a more active school day should be encouraged for all children. By increasing awareness on PA trends for school-age kids and by adjusting curricula and promoting activity on a regular basis, children will be more likely to maintain good health and lower their chances of obesity and other chronic diseases as they age.

-Summarized by Greg Gargiulo

-As reported in the March, ’10 edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine