As the weather warms, it’s more important than ever to commit to an active lifestyle.
According to a five-year study conducted by researchers at various Canadian universities, the drop in physical activity that teens experience during winter months contributes significantly to a general slowdown in exercise habits during adolescence.
“While physical activity augments in spring and summer, these increases do not compensate for winter drop offs, which contribute to declining physical activity throughout adolescence,” says Dr. Mathieu Belanger, lead author of the study at the University of New Brunswick. Other research that measured activity more directly than this study (using sealed pedometers) indicates that high school students decrease their activity levels by an average of 33% during weekends compared to weekdays (Dr. Paul von Hippel and associates, American Journal of Public Health, April 2007). The reduced structure that comes with the summertime also seems related to greater weight gain in children during the summer than during the winter, as reported by Dr. Maea Hohepa and colleagues from New Zealand (Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 2008). These researchers argued that unstructured time generally leads to less movement and maybe increased snacking. As teenagers get older, they have more independence – and that independence may translate to selecting more sedentary summertime-type choices (music, movies, driving in cars vs. active play).
Regardless of the season, we also know that activity helps improve academic performance. We see ample evidence of this at Wellspring Academies, where in one recent study students increased their GPA by 25%. A new study by University of Illinois researchers demonstrates that activity specifically improves students’ cognitive control, or ability to pay attention.
In the Illinois study, students were tested following a 20-minute resting period, and on another day, after a 20-minute walk on a treadmill. During the testing, students’ brain activities were mapped.
The researchers found that following the walk, children performed better on the task. They had a higher rate of accuracy, especially when the task was more difficult. Along with this behavioral effect, researchers also found that the students’ brain activity suggested that they performed better because they attended more carefully to the task.
The study also involved an academic achievement test (reading, spelling, and math) administered after a rest or walk. Again, the researchers noted better test results following exercise. The effect was largest in reading comprehension – almost by a full grade level.
But while activity at school might improve focus and academic performance, increases in activity alone will not help overweight children lose weight effectively and keep it off. A study published in the April issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that school-based interventions did not decrease excess weight in children.
The study analyzed 18 different studies involving 18,000 children in school-based physical education programs that lasted between six months and three years. The researchers found that these physical education programs had no effect on children’s degree of excess weight.The lead author of the study noted that “it’s definitely a misnomer to say that these programs alone will solve childhood obesity.”
In a report on the study in the Globe & Mail newspaper, Kieran Kennedy, principal at East Front Public School in Cornwall, Ontario commented on the fact that children at his school now get 38 minutes of physical education a day: “All the other factors in society are dwarfing that really good 38 minutes,” he said, listing things like too much sweets, fast food and too much television.
Helping your overweight child achieve a healthier weight requires more than a gym class, or joining a gym. It requires commitment to a healthy lifestyle, including changes in diet and activity and attitude.
Helping to set the stage for this commitment can take time and resources. But the rewards for increasing fitness and reducing excess weight are significantly longer, happier and better lives.