Boosting physical activity levels for students

Taking active measures: how schools can boost physical activity levels for students

Research shows that very few children are getting adequate exercise, but schools can develop strategies to build more physical activity into students’ daily routines.


Only a few decades ago, being active was simply part of growing up. Backyards, school ovals, footpaths and cul-de-sacs were filled with children walking, running, riding their bikes and playing neighbourhood games of football or cricket.

But things have changed. Time-poor parents, population growth pressures, perceptions of safety, reliance on cars, and the ubiquity of digital technology mean that being physically active is no longer a way of life for Australian kids.

The evidence is mounting. According to VicHealth, the walk or bike ride to school is now enjoyed by as few as one in four children. Around 80 per cent don’t get the recommended hour of exercise every day, a figure that rises to 92 per cent for high school students aged between 12 and 17. And the federal Department of Health observes that one quarter of young people are overweight or obese.

Kids are driven to more places because their parents are time-poor and are not always confident about children playing and travelling independently.

‘In the past children and young people would play in their backyard or street, ride their bike or play sport with friends,’ says Kirstan Corben, Executive Manager – Programs at VicHealth.

‘Kids are driven to more places because their parents are time-poor and are not always confident about children playing and travelling independently. There’s also a crunch on space within certain schools and, as populations boom, schools often have no choice but to install demountable classrooms. That limits opportunities for physical activity and incidental exercise within the school grounds.’

Research shows that it’s vital for children to be active every day not just for their physical health, but for their mental and emotional wellbeing, too. Research from the US suggests that executive function and brain health, both essential for academic performance, are enhanced by physical activity and aerobic fitness. And Canadian studies have also found that physical activity has a positive impact on concentration, memory and classroom behaviour.

Increasingly, attention is being focused on schools and the ways in which they can incorporate and prioritise opportunities for movement. ‘Kids spend five days a week at school, so it makes sense to look at how schools are building in opportunities for physical activity,’ Corben says.


Disrupting the ‘seated’ lesson 

In September 2018, funding from VicHealth and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) gave primary schools across Victoria free access to Transform-Us!, an online program that helps build more movement into everyday activities in classrooms and playgrounds, as well as at home.

Professor Jo Salmon, co-director of the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University, led the Transform-Us! pilot program that ran from 2010 to 2012, with more than 220 teachers and 1600 students taking part.

Inside the classroom, the program included active lessons to break up prolonged periods of sitting, with teachers asked to deliver one standing lesson each day to get students on their feet.

Outside the classroom, sporting equipment was provided for use during recess and lunch. Staff members encouraged students to get active during these break times, and teachers set ‘active homework’ such as taking a parent for a walk or completing maths or science tasks outside.

School students in class: The Transform-Us pilot program included active lessons to get primary school students on their feet

Overall, the students who participated in Transform-Us! had a 33-minute reduction in sitting time each day, as well as a five-minute increase in moderate to vigorous activity per day. There were also improvements in the students’ Body Mass Index (BMI), waist circumference and blood pressure measurements.

Eighty-five per cent of students experienced greater concentration after an active break. And 96 per cent of teachers said they would continue with active homework strategies.

‘It’s a simple program that can improve children’s classroom behaviours, academic outcomes, physical activity and their health,’ says Salmon.


In the UK, the Daily Mile is proving to be a popular and successful grass-roots strategy for getting primary school students moving. Less sophisticated than Transform-Us! it simply sees schools committing to a 15-minute, non-competitive, fresh-air running session every day. Research from the University of Stirling has shown that the program generates substantial health benefits, including increased fitness, increased levels of physical activity, decreased sedentary behaviour and reduced levels of fat. 

The secondary school drop-off

 The recommendations for physical activity set out in Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines differ according to age. Last year, a report published by The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found that children aged two to five years were the group most likely to meet the recommended guidelines for their age. The group least likely to do so were young people aged 13 to 17 years, who struggle to find time for physical activity among burgeoning commitments related to part-time work, increased study, social activities and learning to drive.

‘Secondary school is a tricky time for many students,’ says Dr Erica Randle, a research fellow at the Centre for Sport and Social Impact at La Trobe University. ‘Many students disengage from sport in high school.’

The Centre for Sport and Social Impact partnered with The Australian Sports Commission (now known as Sport Australia) to conduct a research pilot that ran across 100 secondary schools over five terms. ‘The aim of the research was to identify what interventions engage and motivate young people to continue participating in sport and physical activity,’ says Randle.

There’s all kinds of pressures on kids between 12 and 17 years and often sport and physical activity is one of the first things to be dropped.

The research found that disengaged students could be grouped into distinct cohorts, each with their own barriers and motivations. Some lacked access to equipment or skilled teachers. Some were affected by time pressures, or dropped out due to injury. Some were inhibited by lack of general fitness or skills. Others were troubled by what they perceived as competitive environments or gendered social norms.

‘The results highlighted that there are a number of barriers to physical activity for young people, and it often gets harder when they go to high school,’ says Randle. ‘There’s all kinds of pressures on kids between 12 and 17 years and often sport and physical activity is one of the first things to be dropped.’


Know the why

For Bernie Holland, Professional Learning Manager of the Victorian branch of the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation (ACHPER), encouraging physical activity within schools isn’t enough. ‘It’s really important that projects in schools promoting physical activity also promote learning about why students should be active,’ he says.

‘One of my PhD students found that while PE teachers valued activity and fitness, they only spent one per cent of their PE time teaching children about why it is important to be active. If children don’t get the “why”, it doesn’t matter how active they are, it’s something that they may not feel motivated to continue to do.’

Holland argues that we need to actively entrench the notion of physical activity being crucial for good health, in the same way that the Sun Smart campaign entrenched ideas about sun safe behaviour.

‘Children these days don’t venture outside in term one or four without a teacher prompting them to put on a hat or sunscreen. That then becomes automatic and they understand that the sun can do damage,’ he says.

‘Imagine if before recess teachers brainstormed with kids about the activities they could do, or asked them what they did that was active after they came inside, and reinforced the importance and benefits of being active. I guarantee that would stimulate activity at recess and lunchtime.’

Holland believes teachers are unsure about how to include physical activity within various curriculum areas, and are concerned that incorporating more activity into a school day will impact literacy and numeracy outcomes.

‘In fact it’s the opposite,’ Holland says. ‘We know that when kids get moving their mental, physical and emotional health improves.’


Schools on the move

‘We need to remember that schools are a destination in and of themselves, and that provides an opportunity,’ observes Corben. ‘VicHealth encourages children to walk, ride or scoot to and from school as part of Walk to School and we’ve seen schools really embrace that.’

But Corben acknowledges that there are challenges, particularly where parents drive their children as part of their journey to work or in regional areas where students rely on public transport.

‘Some schools encourage students to get off the bus early and walk, or to walk a few laps of the oval once they get to school,’ she says.

Inner city schools face other challenges, as growing populations impact on the space available for students. Vertical schools, such as Haileybury’s 10-storey private school campus in Melbourne’s central business district, have devised unique ways to encourage physical activity. Haileybury has an indoor running track, outdoor terraces, tennis courts, a rooftop gymnasium and a pedestrian crossing from the school to Flagstaff Gardens.

Nearby, government-run Albert Park Primary School has the dedicated use of a community park during school hours, with the park open to the public on weekends and outside school time.

‘This is a great example of how community spaces can be used by schools and vice versa,’ says Corben, who adds that many schools have facilities that can be shared with the community outside school hours, such as an indoor basketball court that gets used by a local club, or a hall that’s hired by a dance school.

Another government school, Melbourne Girls’ College on the banks of the Yarra River, makes use of surrounding natural resources. ‘Rowing has traditionally been seen as a private school sport, but we are a non-select entry state school with a very strong rowing program,’ says principal Karen Money.

‘The beauty of having a small school (of 1460 girls) is that you can follow a group’s niche interest and then other girls see the value of it. That’s what happened with rowing, aerobics and now weightlifting,’ she says.

For Money, physical activity is not just about being healthy in mind and body, but also the environment. ‘We are trying to be as carbon neutral as we can,’ she says. The school has two stationary bikes in its canteen that are attached to the electricity grid, with a rowing prototype being trialled. ‘I believe that there’s a real crossover with physical activity and sustainability,’ says Money. ‘It’s teaching our students that physical activity can make a difference beyond physical health.’

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