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Study Suggests Best Ways for Schools to Promote Physical Activity

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Mandatory physical education, classroom activity breaks, and active commuting to school are the most effective ways schools can promote physical activity in students, according to a study published online in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine earlier this month.

The study authors determined which policy changes in schools could have the greatest effect on students' physical activity levels by examining 65 original investigations published between 1995 and 2011. Each of the 65 articles in the review objectively measured students' physical activity through the use of accelerometers, heart rate monitors, pedometers, and direct observation. Studies that relied solely on students self-reporting their physical activity were not included due to unreliability.

The authors then estimated how much energy students expended by using the "primary physical activity outcome variable" in each of the articles in the review, such as pedometer steps, percentage of classroom time spent in physical activity, or minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA).

They found that schools implementing mandatory physical education classes could help students engage in up to 23 minutes of MVPA each school day, the highest of any activity reviewed in the study. Classroom activity breaks could add up to 19 minutes of MVPA per day and active commuting (walking or biking) to school could result in 16 minutes of MVPA, the authors found.

Combining required daily physical education classes, classroom activity breaks and active commuting to school could result in up to 58 minutes of MVPA per day for students, the study found. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that children engage in at least 60 minutes of MVPA on a daily basis.

"This study shows that policymakers have a lot of tools at their disposal to help kids be active," said lead study author David R. Bassett, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in a statement. "But it also shows that no change alone will be enough. Helping young people reach activity goals will require a combination of strategies."

In total, the study authors analyzed nine types of policy changes. Beyond mandatory phys. ed., classroom activity breaks, and active commuting to school, they examined renovating parks (12 minutes of MVPA per day); increasing after-school physical activity programs (10 minutes); standardizing phys. ed. curricula (six minutes); modifying school playgrounds (six minutes); modifying recess to include more play equipment (five minutes); and increasing access to parks (one minute).

The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living Research program.

On a tangentially related note: An article published online today in The New England Journal of Medicine addresses a handful of "myths, presumptions, and facts about obesity," including one about physical education.

The authors debunked the claim that "physical education classes in their current format play an important role in preventing or reducing childhood obesity" based on three studies focused on expanded time in physical education. They noted that while the children spent more time in phys. ed. classes, "the effects on body-mass index were inconsistent across sexes and age groups."

With that said, the authors did acknowledge that there "is almost certainly a level of physical activity (a specific combination of frequency, intensity, and duration) that would be effective in reducing or preventing obesity." They question, however, is whether such a level is plausible in conventional school settings.

Photo: Andrew Kenny, right, does pushups with other Bear Elementary students as they practice for the Alabama physical fitness assessment test in December. Alabama's public school students are taking part in a new physical fitness assessment this year, replacing a series of tests that had not been updated since their parents were in school. (Amanda Sowards/Montgomery Advertiser/AP)

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