Dr Kelly Morgan – Cardiff University
Regular physical activity helps growth and development throughout childhood, reduces a range of chronic disease risks, and is associated with improved mental health and wellbeing. Current public health recommendations suggest that young people aged 5-17 years perform at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day. However, a large number of young people do not meet this recommendation, particularly girls.
In addition, an emerging evidence base indicates that sedentary (inactive) behaviour increases metabolic risks such as higher blood pressure, cholesterol, sugar levels, and body mass index (BMI). A recent study indicated that over 60% of 15-year olds report two or more hours of television viewing per day, a level shown to reduce physical and mental wellbeing health outcomes amongst children and youth. Therefore, promoting young people’s physical activity, while reducing sedentary behaviour, are dual priorities.
This study looked to explore the links between individual and school level predictors and physical activity and sedentary activity, amongst 11-16 year olds.
Previous UK studies suggest that a majority of young people’s overall physical activity takes place during the school day, with key opportunities during PE classes and lunch breaks. Currently, the UK government recommends that schools provide at least two hours of PE and sport a week, although there is no statutory minimum amount of time in England and Wales.
However, recent decades have seen a trend toward shortening of school breaks in response to academic pressures, potentially reducing opportunities for physical activity and increasing the proportion of time in seated sedentary activities. In addition to the school day, travel to and from school can contribute up to half of a young person’s overall physical activity.
The research team linked data provided by the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) Study in Wales with data from the HBSC School Environment Questionnaire. The final sample analysed in this study consisted of the 7,376 students within 67 schools, with both individual- and school-level data available.
The study looked at individual data, such as:
- How often students reported physical activity out of the school environment. They were also asked how much time they spent during the week on screen-based sedentary activities such as TV, computers, games consoles and mobile phones.
- Participants reported their age, gender and ethnicity.
- Students were asked about how they travelled to school, for example did they travel by car, bus, and bicycle or did they walk.
- Information was gathered on smoking and alcohol consumption.
- Data was collected to indicate material affluence, for example students were asked if they had their own bedroom, do their parents own a car, do they have family holidays.
School level data included:
- Free school meal entitlement.
- Duration of lunch-breaks.
- Provision of sports facilities, including at lunchtime and during after school activities.
- Time allocated to PE activities.
- Head teachers were also asked if their school currently has a healthy eating and fitness policy.
- Most young people reported being active 4, or less, days per week, with just 16% meeting current physical activity recommendations.
- 85% of participants exceeded the recommended levels of 2 or less hours of screen based activity a day.
- Consistent with previous studies, boys were almost twice as likely to be physically active and engage in moderate – vigorous physical activity in comparison to girls. Despite reporting higher levels of physical activity, boys reported higher levels of sedentary behaviour in comparison to girls.
- Active travel to school could offer a way to increase physical activity levels, particularly amongst girls.
- Findings also highlight the association between shorter lunch breaks and increased sedentary time. There is growing evidence that if schools maintain or extend the duration of lunch breaks, this may have a positive impact on sedentary behaviour through the provision of more time for physical activity.
- Interestingly, longer PE lessons and a higher provision of school facilities were associated with high sedentary behaviours. These findings could indicate a compensatory mechanism, whereby young people who are exposed to more physical activity throughout the school-day will compensate with sedentary behaviours after school hours.
With some Secondary Schools in Wales providing lunch breaks of 30 minutes or less, further research examining how exactly young people spend their time during lunch is required. This would provide a greater understanding of the social influences and school-setting on young people’s physical activity levels.
Increasingly reports are showing that children prefer to watch television or play computer games as opposed to being physically active, resulting in a growing concern around high levels of sedentary behaviours, even amongst those who are provided with physical activity opportunities in the school day.
The research indicated that design and evaluation of interventions to promote physical activity during school hours should employ a comprehensive approach, including a focus on school policies and behaviours both in and out of school hours. Promoting young people’s physical activity, while reducing sedentary behaviour, are key priorities to improve health and wellbeing outcomes. Importantly, findings from this study can be used to align health improvement with the core business of schools and to argue for the implementation of universal as opposed to targeted interventions.
Read the full research article here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4946284/