Originally published June 10, 2017, in the Maple Ridge News
By Bronte Miner
Schools are, by definition, meant to educate children about how to function as contributing members of society and should, therefore, try to teach students to be well-rounded individuals. An important part of any healthy lifestyle is a basic physical literacy.
Without this knowledge, many young people will choose to withdraw from sports and physical activities because they are discouraged or simply uninterested. Without having been taught about the importance of physical activity, they have trouble making healthy choices and, instead, turn to inactive, unhealthy activities to occupy their time.
This has led to a decline in the number of Canadian children playing sports over the past few years.
According to Statistics Canada, in the past 13 years, the participation of boys in organized sports declined from 66 per cent to 56. Not only are boys less likely to participate in sports, but the average number of sports they were involved with also fell. The participation of girls dropped from 49 per cent to 45 within the same period, with lower participation rates as they aged.
Regular physical activity can decrease the risk of developing over 25 chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis. The merits of an active lifestyle reach beyond the obvious health benefits. Those who are physically literate have the advantage of being comfortable making the most of opportunities to have adventures and try new activities regardless of the setting or conditions.
Including regular physical activity breaks allows children and young adults to get their excess energy out while also increasing their ability to focus on the lesson that follows. Simple exercises and activities also correlate with enhanced literacy and numeracy skills.
These short activity breaks improve a student’s ability to focus and retain information. It even improves test scores. This may be due, in part, to the fact that more active children have a more developed brain structure and perform better on cognitive tests. The development in the areas of the brain that support critical thinking and memory are also higher in these cases. Children who are in superior physical shape also boast better white matter tracts in their brains, which improves their learning ability.
A clinical trial was recently conducted with children between seven and nine years old by the University of Illinois. The school’s neurocognitive kinesiology lab had half of its subjects participate in a two-hour, play-based fitness session after their classes. After a period of 160 days, the lab’s leader, Charles Hillman, reported a significant increase in brain function in the active children compared to the control group. They also performed better on their attention and cognitive tests. Dr. Hillman’s team even found that even 20 minutes of easy walking can boost performance in regions of the brain that support math and reading abilities, for up to an hour.
This benefit does not only apply solely to children and young adults. Researchers at Dartmouth College found that 12 minutes of aerobic exercise increased attention scores among that school’s students. The improvement was even more significant for low-income students. The activities had such a great influence that they nearly eliminated the pre-test performance gap between the low and higher income students.
Sitting idly for long periods of time is not healthy.
Some schools have already caught on to this positive trend and implemented experimental programs to test these methods. These programs are designed to include students with average or even below average physical abilities.
Concerns about getting students to settle down again turned out to be groundless. After a pilot project in 2011, higher scores in math and reading comprehension among struggling students were reported. After implementing regular physical activity breaks, Ontario’s Barrie Central saw math scores rise more than 10 per cent within a single school year. More students passed their math and English courses and there was even a decrease in the number of behavioral problems and suspensions.
Canada has recently slid in the international math standings, making educational authorities concerned.
Including fitness-based activities has seen promising results, yet fewer than half of the elementary schools in the country have a trained physical education teacher designated to the job.
Bronte Miner is a student at Maple Ridge secondary.