No time to plough through long reports? Here we have compiled the latest information on the health habits of children and young people and the link between physical activity and school performance.
How much exercise children and young people need
The body is built for movement. According to international and national guidelines, school children should engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least one hour per day. And on top of that, more vigorous and strenuous exercise three times a week, such as football, orienteering, jump rope, judo or dance. Ideally as varied as possible to develop all types of physical capacity; cardiopulmonary capacity, muscular and skeletal strength, speed, coordination, etc.
At the same time, the research community agrees on the importance of everyday exercise in between, from jumping on a trampoline with friends to cycling to school or cleaning your room. And that we should avoid long periods of immobility and/or stand up instead of sitting, whenever possible.
Only three out of ten are moving enough
Only three out of ten young people reach the recommended amount and level of physical activity. The situation is better among boys, where the average is 44%, while only 22% of girls reach this level. And in general, younger school children are more active than older ones. Only 14% of secondary school girls meet the recommendation of one hour of physical activity per day.
Sedentary behaviour is increasing
Children and young people are also more sedentary than before and Sweden is at the bottom of Europe. Swedish children spend an average of two-thirds of their waking hours sitting still and screen time is identified as one of the reasons. For secondary school students, the figure is even higher and among both genders. Some countries, such as Australia, Canada and the UK, include advice on limiting sedentary time in their physical activity recommendations for children and young people.
What is the impact on school performance?
The importance of exercise for young people’s health is not in itself new knowledge. It provides improved fitness and motor skills, increased muscular and skeletal strength, smoother blood sugar levels, better metabolism, etc. It also reduces the risk of serious diseases such as diabetes 2 and cardiovascular disease later in life.
However, knowledge of the role of physics in mental well-being and performance at school is relatively new. Research shows clear links between exercise and increased self-esteem and reduced risk of depression. This is because physical activity triggers a number of positive processes in the brain. Thus, just like the body, the brain benefits from fitness and strength training.
There are also several studies that highlight immediate mental effects on students and the surrounding learning environment. After just a few minutes of movement, concentration and reading comprehension improve. Overall, activity and movement in schools can increase learning by as much as 50%. This is because we can remember and concentrate better when blood circulation increases and the brain receives more oxygen and nutrients.
Regular exercise also releases more of the brain’s feel-good hormones and provides a natural physical outlet for stress hormones. This makes us more creative, resilient and positive to actively participate in learning and less likely to disrupt others.
Physical activity is also highlighted as ‘medicine’ for children with diagnoses such as ADHD. By exercising for half an hour in the morning and having space for movement at school, they can perform at the same level as children without a diagnosis.
There is also evidence that physical exercise can make us ‘smarter’. For example, studies have shown that fit children have larger memory centers in their brains than unfit children.
What must schools do and what can schools do?
Schools are a unique arena that can contribute to health equity for children and young people. It encompasses everyone and much of children’s and young people’s time is spent in classrooms, gyms and school playgrounds. In particular, lifelong habits are established at a young age.
According to the curriculum, primary schools should aim to offer all pupils daily physical activity throughout the school day (Lgr11). For example, schools should encourage physical activity during breaks and after school and 140-180 (140 primary and 180 secondary) hours per school year should be scheduled for physical education and health.
Another important measure that many schools are now working on is active classrooms. Traditional schooling often involves many hours of sedentary work. Introducing natural movement and short breaks in education can make a big difference to both health and academic performance, and limit the negative effects of sedentary behaviour. Read more about active classrooms here.
Finally, the cross-cutting topic of health literacy could be introduced, or at least more clearly integrated into the curriculum. Many schools in Finland, for example, have chosen to do this.