Investing in a broad school health program could lead to in-school and at-home benefits for students, a new Canadian study hints.
Children increased their daily physical activity on both school days and weekends in the years after schools hired a full-time health facilitator and set healthy living goals, researchers found.
"It shows that if you deliver a school program well, kids not only will be active more during the school hours when they are in the hands of the teachers but they're also being trained and understand that it's important to be physically active at other times," Paul J. Veugelers said.
He worked on the study at the University of Alberta's School of Public Health in Edmonton.
School programs aimed at improving fitness and reducing obesity have produced mixed results. No program had been proven to meaningfully affect how much children exercise outside of school hours, the researchers noted.
They organized an intervention targeted toward elementary schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Edmonton. The program was implemented in 10 schools in the beginning of 2008 and continued through the 2010-2011 school year.
The researchers assessed the needs of each school and designed activities to get kids moving based on those needs. Some schools had activity groups designed especially for girls, for instance, and others hosted yoga or dance classes to get less-competitive students exercising. Each school also had a full-time health facilitator to teach classes and organize activities.
To see how much kids at those schools were actually exercising, Veugelers and his colleagues asked approximately 200 fifth-graders to wear a pedometer for one week in 2009 and another 200 to begin wearing the device in 2011, further into the program.
For comparison, they also had fifth-graders at 20 schools where the program wasn't implemented wear pedometers at the same time. Children at those schools generally came from wealthier families and fewer of them were overweight.
Students from both groups of schools upped their physical activity during the two-year period. But gains were bigger at schools that had implemented the health program. Children's average daily steps during a typical week increased by 21 percent - from about 10,700 to 13,000 steps - at those schools.
At comparison schools, children increased their physical activity by 7 percent - from 12,300 to 13,100 steps per day.
Improvements were seen on both weekdays and weekends, the researchers wrote Monday in Pediatrics.
"One of the big strengths of this study is they objectively measured how much physical activity improved," Dr. Kevin C. Harris said. A pediatric cardiologist at BC Children's Hospital in Vancouver, Canada, Harris has studied school physical activity programs but wasn't involved in the new research.
"It's very encouraging that this actually increased the level of physical activity," he told Reuters Health.
"The success of the program comes really from connecting everybody," including school staff, teachers, parents and students, Veugelers said.
One downside of the intervention, he said, is that it's "not an inexpensive program." The upside is that it seems to work even in poorer, more challenging schools.
"These were not the easiest schools," Veugelers told Reuters Health. "If we can deliver it in those schools, I think we can deliver it in other schools."