School policies on physical activity should reflect the way children move - in short bursts, say U of T researchers (Thinkstock photo)

Couch potatoes in the classroom

According to Ontario Ministry of Education policy, elementary school children must get 20 minutes of sustained moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.

But U of T researchers who monitored almost 900 students in 16 schools couldn't find a single child who did.

With screen time hours and obesity rates at all-time highs, the directive sounds good on paper. Yet according to a U of T study published in the current issue of The Canadian Journal of Public Health, most schools are not only failing to implement the 2005 policy, but could be struggling because the prescribed approach isn’t aligned with the way a child typically moves and plays.

Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education researchers went into grade five and six classrooms in 16 GTA schools to look at teachers’ scheduled allotments for daily physical activity, and to monitor almost 900 students using accelerometers (which record movement and its intensity).

They found that not a single child in the study achieved the policy standard of 20 minutes of uninterrupted, heart-pumping exercise.

“Only 19 per cent accumulated at least one sustained bout of moderate to vigorous activity that lasted five minutes or more during scheduled daily physical activity across the school week,” says author and lead researcher Michelle Stone, who specializes in children’s physical activity patterns.

“We think the policy needs to be revised to better reflect the way children move – in short, sporadic spurts.”

Stone suggests that the mandate could be more successful if it advocated for an accumulation of 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity throughout the entire day.   

While more than half of the children in the study did not achieve the policy goals, those whose teachers scheduled a session of physical activity into every day of the school week demonstrated healthier BMI levels and were generally more active, suggesting that mandated physical activity time might be effective in achieving broad health benefits. 

The study is one of the first of its kind in Ontario and its investigators say more research is required.  But Professor Guy Faulkner, who oversaw the project, says that often-overstretched teachers and administrators need to have access to resources and knowledge-sharing opportunities to help design a daily curriculum that always includes physical activity.

“We can start by taking a closer look at those teachers and schools that are able to include physical activity into each day and see what we can learn from them.”

The Daily Physical Activity (DPA) Policy in Ontario: Is it Working? An Examination using Accelerometry-Measured Physical Activity data was collected as part of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education’s Project BEAT, which focuses on active transport and physical activity patterns in school-aged children.

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