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Regular exercise has many health benefits for children and public health organisations are working to increase physical activity. However, there is a lack of objective data to measure the effectiveness of physical activity and associated programmes. Premier Education partnered with ukactive to explore effective ways of measuring primary school children’s fitness levels. Read the full report here.
In this article, we explain a new and more effective way of measuring child health. And, in so doing, find that child fitness levels decline over the summer holiday. We also detail how all stakeholders – parents, schools, public health agencies and teachers – can support children’s activity levels, particularly over those summer months.
The importance of exercise for children’s mental and physical health is widely accepted. Physical activity strengthens bones, the heart and muscles, contributing to a strong physical foundation that will reduce the likelihood of ill health in later life. Exercise also impacts mental wellbeing by helping to reduce stress, improve mood, support better sleep and reduce the risk of brain fog. These benefits impact children’s academic performance, helping concentration and productivity.
Despite this, studies show that from the age of four or five, physical activity starts to decline. Between the ages of six and 15, moderate and vigorous physical activity (MVPA) declines and sedentary time increases linearly.
Many UK public health agencies work to protect and support the improvement of physical health and fitness among children. However, the effectiveness of these programmes is only based on self-reported information, not objective data. The lack of objective health data means it is difficult to determine the accuracy and validity of programme results which in turn makes them less effective in defining the best approach.
Objective health data is needed to aid all stakeholders – parents, schools, public health agencies – in understanding which public health programmes are effective. However, can this be accurately measured?
Premier Education believes in the importance of improving children’s health and wellbeing by providing opportunities for physical activity in primary schools. This is why we partnered with ukactive, to carry out a study that effectively measures the fitness levels of primary school children over one academic year using BMI and cardiorespiratory fitness, not self-reported data.
The aim was to determine the fluctuations in fitness levels and, subsequently, the effect of physical activity programmes throughout the year. The study would also determine whether objective data on physical activity could be gathered in the first place.
Read the entire children’s fitness testing in primary schools’ study here.
One potential method to determine children’s health is by measuring body mass index (BMI). The National Child Weight Measurement Programme (NCMP) measures the height and weight of primary-age children to determine their BMI. The ratio of weight and height provides valuable data for assessing whether children are in a healthy range.
However, this may not always be an entirely accurate gauge of fitness. Tall and thin children who have lower BMI scores might be inactive and unhealthy, while shorter and heavyset children may be active and healthy – despite having a higher BMI score. BMI alone isn’t always indicative of someone’s health.
Cardiorespiratory fitness – commonly known as just ‘cardio’ or aerobic exercise – is a more accurate measure of health status. This is the ability of the circulatory and respiratory systems to supply the body with oxygen during exercise. Better cardiorespiratory fitness improves how well the body utilises oxygen, meaning you increase your endurance and can do rigorous physical activity for longer periods.
Because cardiorespiratory fitness is a true indicator of physical activity, it’s a much better method for measuring children’s health – as well as adults’. By encouraging children to do more physical activity outside of school, parents may also end up doing more physical activity – helping to increase their own cardiorespiratory fitness.
By measuring cardiorespiratory fitness alongside BMI, we can better understand the health status of primary-age children. But how would we test this?
Premier Education and ukactive measured BMI and cardiorespiratory fitness by utilising the 20m shuttle-run test – equivalent to Premier Education’s My Personal Best Challenge.
As well as painting a picture of children’s fitness levels, the study aimed to determine the feasibility of testing fitness levels in primary schools as a whole.
The results reveal that primary-age child fitness levels increase significantly during the academic year and decrease significantly over the summer holidays – to below the levels recorded at the beginning of the study.
This was further affected by the school’s location. Children from schools in the poorest areas saw the greatest reduction in fitness levels – significantly greater than those from more affluent areas.
However, after 12 months the children who took part in the Premier Education activity programme (My Personal Best Challenge) were fitter than those who did not. They also saw less of a reduction in fitness levels during the summer months compared to children who did not take part in the programme.
These findings show that while physical activity programmes are positively impacting children’s fitness levels during the academic year, these levels plummet during the summer months.
The greater reduction in deprived areas suggests that opportunities to keep children active are inaccessible to families who cannot afford additional activities or cannot manage around working hours.
The study’s results suggest that in order to support children’s health throughout the summer months, policy-makers need to invest in opportunities to keep children active. Because the reduction was particularly high in schools from the poorest areas, these activities need to be accessible and affordable, working to support the needs of parents.
The need for further support of children’s fitness is relevant in light of the funds already being invested into school sport by way of the soft drinks levy. Manufacturers who produce soft drinks with sugar will be taxed at an additional rate depending on the amount of sugar in their products. This means that manufacturers will either greatly reduce the amount of sugar in their drinks or pay the levy.
The results have been significant – 50% of manufacturers have reduced their sugar content, equating to 45 million kg of sugar every year. The expected £240 million raised each year goes towards supporting sports facilities and equipment in schools.
As well as informing policy-makers of the need to support children’s physical activity during the summer, this study suggests that regular testing of children’s physical activity is feasible. The 20m shuttle-run test – equivalent to Premier Education’s My Personal Best Challenge – can be used to provide objective health data. It must be noted that, all parents consented to their child taking part in the study and only one child reported not enjoying the experience.
The results can inform stakeholders of children’s health and help funnel funding into areas that need it most.
Teachers need to influence and support children in engaging in physical activity both inside and outside of school hours. This begins by creating a positive and motivating school environment from the outset. Studies show that students who have a positive experience of PE in school will be more likely to exercise outside of school.
Get in touch with Premier Education to see how we can support child health and wellbeing in your school through before- and after-school clubs.