Physically active academic school lessons boost pupils’ activity levels and focus

GettyImages-598216698.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

For various reasons, children in many countries are increasingly sedentary and childhood obesity is a growing concern. At the same time, research tells us that physical activity is good for children’s minds and bodies, and that if they develop active habits in their youth, they tend to keep them up into adulthood.

It would surely help if children were more active at school, but with growing academic pressures, teachers will tell you that it is difficult to justify sacrificing vital maths and English lessons for more PE classes or games. A possible solution: make academic lessons more physically active. A new trial of a 6-week intervention comprising 18 ten-minute active maths and English lessons, published in Health Education and Behavior, suggests that such an approach has great potential.

Emma Norris at UCL and her colleagues recruited hundreds of pupils aged 8-9 from 10 London schools. Half were allocated randomly to the active lesson intervention. While they were doing those special classes, the other half of the children acted as a comparison and completed typically taught 10-minute maths and English classes.

Children enrolled in the intervention followed the “virtual traveller” protocol, which involved them performing physical exercises, such as running on the spot, while they travelled the world answering math or English quiz questions pertaining to different countries.

Virtual travel from country to country was depicted via Google Earth videos and other materials embedded in the teacher’s interactive white board presentation.

Further physical activity came from the exercises the children performed to signal whether a given math or English quiz answer was true or false – such as jumping jacks for “true” or performing a football kick for “false”.

Norris and her team had the children wear motion trackers during the classes and also outside of class for two school days per week and two weekend days (these measures were taken at baseline, during the six-week period, and for a few months beyond). Trained observers also monitored the children’s on-task behaviour in class, and the kids completed questionnaires about their engagement levels.

In some ways, the trial was a win-win: the children in the active intervention were more active (based on more light and moderately vigorous activity) during their “virtual traveller” lessons as compared with the control group kids, and what’s more, they also displayed more on-task behavior, in terms of staying more focused on the lesson, following instructions and making more eye contact with their teacher.

This is very promising but perhaps not quite as good as might have been hoped. The children in the active intervention were mostly no more active than the control kids when averaged across entire school days, nor at the weekends, and this was this case both during and beyond the end of the study. That is, they were more active in the specially designed active lessons (it would have been odd if they weren’t), but mostly this didn’t boost their activity levels enough to make any difference when averaging across the whole day (and didn’t spill over into their habits at the weekend).

This lack of a broader benefit could be because the activities in the “virtual traveller” class were not intense enough; the classes were too short and/or infrequent; or perhaps the children compensated for all their in-class exertion by relaxing more later in the day.

Another disappointment is that the physically active lessons did not boost the pupils’ self-reported engagement levels. On the other hand, and interpreting this result more positively, the extra physical activity did not harm their engagement either.

It will be interesting to follow this line of research and see whether longer and/more intense physically active lesson programmes could have bigger benefits for pupils’ lifestyles and whether active lessons might also have an impact on children’s educational performance in the long run.

Physically Active Lessons Improve Lesson Activity and On-Task Behavior:
A Cluster-Randomized Controlled Trial of the “Virtual Traveller” Intervention

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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