This is why 60 minutes of physical activity should be mandatory in schools

Years of reporting on children’s activity has made one thing abundantly clear—kids need to meet the physical activity guidelines.

Children who get 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per day are stronger, more confident, and less stressed. They have healthier bodyweights, a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, and perform better academically.

The evidence is undeniable. Regular physical activity makes a child’s life go better.

Yet, year after year the vast majority of kids fail to meet the guidelines. Currently 9 in 10 children aren’t active enough on a daily basis and that needs to change.

WHY THE PROBLEM IS SO PERSISTENT

No one is solely responsible for the inactivity crisis. It’s a complex problem with no simple solutions.

Improvements could be made at every level. More could be done at home, in schools, and in our communities. To make progress, we need to change not just individual habits, but collective social norms and default behaviours.

A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

A recent comparison of children’s activity across 38 different countries highlighted a surprisingly effective strategy—mandatory physical activity in schools.

Among the countries compared, Slovenia had the most active children with close to 90% of boys and 80% of girls regularly meeting the national standards. This success has been tied to a dedicated school system that values physical activity.

Slovenian schools have made it their mission to get kids active, offering access to 77 minutes of professionally taught physical activity each and every day. The results speak for themselves, and make it clear that schools have an important role to play in addressing the inactivity crisis.

WHY THIS ISN’T HAPPENING IN CANADA

There are a variety of reasons a similar system doesn’t exist in Canada. Budgets are tight. Teachers are pressed for time and short on resources. Parents often prioritize academic success over gym class participation.

But we don’t believe these obstacles are insurmountable. The importance of meeting the physical activity guidelines is too great to ignore.

So instead of simply declaring that 60 minutes of MVPA should be mandatory in schools, we’ve decided to provide some helpful steps forward for both parents and teachers.

1. Make it a priority

The first step is for parents and teachers alike to place more emphasis on daily movement. It should not take a backseat to academics. On the contrary, regular activity goes hand-in-hand with better grades, increased focused, improved memory, and even better problem solving skills.

This link needs to be stressed. Increasing physical activity is a vital part of improving academic performance.

2. Rethink gym class

People often assume kids get enough activity at school because they have gym class. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

Gym classes often involve a lot of starting and stopping, and time for instruction. All told, kids almost never spend the full time being active.

A better approach would be to focus on more active games, like dodgeball or variations of tag, which get students involved in heart-pumping physical activity. Helping students to develop fundamental movement skills like running, kicking and throwing, which encourage movement beyond gym class, is also key.

3. Incorporate physical activity into lessons

Gym class shouldn’t be seen as the only opportunity to get kids moving. With a little creativity, almost any lesson can become an active one.

For example, rather than having students identify in their notebooks whether “cat” is a noun, verb, pronoun, or adjective, each corner of the classroom could represent an answer and the students could be instructed to run to the correct corner.

Some teachers across Canada have found success with adding exercise equipment to the classroom. In Saskatoon, teachers noticed an improvement in concentration after the addition of a few stationary bikes. Other have seen similar results using standing desks.

While overcoming budget constraints is a constant challenge, the evidence is mounting that exercise can act as a concentration aid, rather than an unnecessary distraction.

4. Use screens to facilitate movement

Across the country, many Canadian schools have introduced innovative teaching tools like Smart Boards into their classrooms. Given that screens are here to stay, we need to figure out how to work with technology, not against it.

Some active applications include songs that get kids up and moving, or games that are both educational and involve movement. Screens have created an opportunity to make lessons more engaging, both mentally and physically.

5. Keep it simple

Of course, while Smart Boards and stationary bikes are great, physical activity doesn’t need to be costly. Take the Daily Mile, for example, an initiative that is quickly gaining momentum in the UK and other European countries.

It works because it’s simple and it’s free. Children run around for 15 minutes a day. There’s no equipment, kits, or changing clothes required. No competition and no staffing issues. Just 15 minutes of uninterrupted activity. It’s a craze we hope catches on in Canada. 

6. Encourage healthy behaviours at every turn

Shifting the social norms of what is expected and accepted in schools won’t be easy—but it will be worth it. Here are some other ways educators can slip physical activity into their students’ school days:

  • Schools can promote physical activity with school-based physical activity policies, physical education classes, recess, classroom-based physical activity opportunities, intermural sports teams, and after-school activities
  • Schools can hang posters in the hallways that promote physical activity, its benefits, and opportunities offered by the school and surrounding community
  • Teachers can encourage physical activity and serve as positive role models
  • Physical education classes can offer a variety of different physical activity opportunities that appeal to various interests and cultures
  • Students can organize a lunch-hour walking group around the school property
  • Schools can consider introducing standing desks and stability ball chairs into classrooms
  • Qualified physical education teachers can be hired by schools and consulted with to create meaningful and appropriate physical activity policies based on all ages and abilities
  • Encourage students to get involved and voice their opinion on what they think is needed to get their peers moving

We’re not saying that it will be easy, but we see no reason why Canadian kids couldn’t get 60 minutes of MVPA in school each day, and every reason why they should.