Should auld classrooms be forgot? Reshaping the classroom to fight childhood obesity

By Alison Ludzki

While many adults are making resolutions to get back into shape in the New Year, what about our kids? With our children trading tee-ball for tablets, 12.7 million children and youth in the United States are obese. Could the classroom be a good place to start combating childhood obesity?

Rise in childhood obesity

Over the last 40 years, exercise has decreased while the availability of (poor quality) food has increased among American children. Correspondingly, childhood obesity has become a notable problem in the United States. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 17% of youth between 2 and 19 are obese. This presents both social and health problems like stigmatization and poor self-esteem. Troublingly, childhood obesity also increases the risk of obesity in adulthood. With the incidence of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes elevated in obese adults, efforts seeking to reduce childhood obesity are important for improving public health and reducing health care costs.

Childhood obesity is complicated to prevent and treat since it is not caused by a single issue or problem. Social determinants such as socioeconomic status, neighborhood safety, and access to food influence the condition. Given the proportion of time kids spend in school, some researchers think the classroom can offer the best platform for change in the community. According to Dr. Rebecca Hasson of the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan, “We know that children spend the majority of their waking hours in the classroom. We’re trying to find effective ways to engineer physical activity back into the school day.”

Using the classroom for activity

Schools across the country have already begun to implement new programs and technologies in an effort to maximize this setting. Physical activity remains a top candidate to combat childhood obesity, given its known potency in the prevention of chronic disease. With the implementation of classroom equipment like fit desks and stationary bikes designed to increase students’ activity levels, the pilot projects looking to optimize the level of activity during the school day have gained momentum. Introducing exercise in the classroom is attractive because it is an organized setting, so unlike recess, this would ensure active participation from all kids. The Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory is among those leading the charge, examining the duration and intensity of physical activity breaks required to see health benefits in school-aged children.

Dr. Hasson’s is currently studying the metabolic, cognitive, psychological, and behavioral effects of 20 two-minute breaks per day to determine if this could represent a practical and effective option. A major appeal of focusing on the classroom is that it doesn’t require children to find their own physical activities or force schools to bring back physical education. Furthermore, this strategy requires minimal equipment, making it affordable for more schools.

allison
Image used with permission from Dr. Rebecca Hasson. Source.

Hasson’s team is testing 2-minute physical activity breaks because they mimic the pattern of children’s movements (bursts of energy).  Not only does this afford insight towards an optimal physical activity dose, but it also introduces activity in a way that is appealing to the student. The breaks include a range of activities, from stretching to jumping jacks. Dr. Hasson acknowledges that it is vital to introduce physical activity into the classroom in a way that is conducive to learning. Evidence suggests that physical activity can help children’s thinking skills in addition to their physical health, and the Active Classroom project will make cognitive measures a key outcome. The two main questions of this project are: (1) What is the optimal dose of in-class physical activity? (2) What classroom design works best? The Active Classroom Project was started in collaboration with the College of Architecture and Urban Planning to assess different floor plans that could emphasize movement and learning. Together, this research offers a multidisciplinary plan to infuse physical activity into the classroom.

The benefits of physical activity in children extend well beyond physical health. Given the low scores observed on the 2014 United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, the need to get children more active in and outside the classroom is apparent. In general, any activity is better than nothing (for adults, too!) – so take two: grab your kid, get up, and take a 2-minute break!

About the author

head shot-2Alison did her undergraduate in Kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. As a competitive runner, her academic interest focused on human performance. Through her Master’s studies in Guelph, Ontario, she became interested in clinical research while studying muscle metabolism in human and rodent models. In Guelph, she started the local Exercise is Medicine group, which seeks to connect researchers with health care providers to give them the tools to prescribe exercise for the treatment and prevention of disease. This inspired her to make knowledge translation a part of her career, and started her interest in science writing as a way to do that. Alison is currently a PhD student in the Substrate Metabolism Lab in the school of Kinesiology, where she studies the effects of diet and exercise on whole body and cellular health in humans. She is seeking a career in clinical research and knowledge translation.

Read all posts by Alison here.

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