A structured physical activity program at school can improve children's fitness and decrease body fat, a study published online in the British Medical Journal shows.
Researchers in Switzerland studied 540 seven and 11-year-olds in 15 schools. Over nine months, pupils randomly allocated to an intervention group underwent a physical activity program designed by experts. This involved structuring their existing three physical education lessons and adding two extra lessons a week. They were also given daily short activity breaks and physical activity homework. Pupils randomly allocated to a control group continued to receive their existing three lessons only.
Researchers reported a relative decrease in body fat, improved aerobic fitness, higher levels of in-school physical activity, smaller increases or larger reductions in body mass index (BMI), and lower cardiovascular risk in the intervention group. However, overall daily physical activity and quality of life did not change significantly.
Ninety per cent of the children and 70% of the teachers enjoyed the five physical education lessons and wanted them to continue. The researchers attribute the success of the program to its use of experts, attractiveness to both children and teachers, intensity, and integration into the school curriculum.
They say the study offers a practical way of implementing a physical activity program in schools. This is important since childhood obesity and cardiovascular disease are increasingly common, and many children are not responsive to programs aimed at increasing out-of-school physical activity.
As well as improving the health and fitness of children, such programs can improve health in later life by reducing cardiovascular and other diseases, they conclude. Since the population of Switzerland is considered representative for central Europe, the results may apply to many other Western countries.
School based physical activity programs are promising, but may be difficult to sustain in the long term, say researchers in an accompanying editorial. Wider implementation of this intervention would substantially add to the school timetable, and further research into the feasibility and acceptability of such a strategy in different countries is needed, they conclude.
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