By Allison Bond
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Providing children with sports equipment, encouragement and a safe environment boosts their activity level during the school day, according to a recent study from Australia.
Researchers found that simple steps such as making sure elementary school students have bats and balls to use during recess or asking students to stand up between classes boosted physical activity during recess by as much as 40 percent.
"We all know that physical activity is important, especially with the growing obesity epidemic," Dr. Vandana Madhavan, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital who was not involved in the research, told Reuters Health. "This study looks at multiple ways to increase activity in the school setting."
The study's authors were not available for comment. Their report is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
The research examined the effects of Transform-Us!, an initiative to increase physical activity among schoolchildren in Australia. About 270 children, an average of eight years old, were divided into four groups and wore devices to measure movement, allowing scientists to compare activity levels before and after the study.
One group received sports equipment and encouragement to increase activity during recess, and another was asked to take breaks to stand throughout the day. A third group was given a blended version of both those interventions.
All three groups were also given at-home assignments to encourage exercise, such as going for a walk with a parent or turning off the TV for one weekend day. A fourth, comparison group of kids continued their usual activities.
Over the course of 18 months, the first two groups had about a 40 percent increase in vigorous activity during their 50-minute recess period compared to those who continued their prior habits.
The group that received a combination of both interventions had a 19 percent increase in vigorous activity, while the fourth group remained about as active as before.
It is important to note that the Australian children in the study differ in important ways from those in the United States, Madhavan said. Namely, about one-fifth of the students were overweight or obese, whereas that number in the U.S. is one-third. And the children had nearly an hour for recess, which is becoming increasingly rare.
In addition, the study followed students for just two-and-a-half years, so effects on long-term health are unknown.
Still, some experts say these results open the door to finding ways to encourage students to get active.
"There is a great deal of inspiration for future obesity intervention research" in the study, said Madhavan.
For example, to boost activity, said Madhavan, "altering the classroom to allow students to stand during lessons, providing an indoor space on days that are too snowy, rainy or cold, and incorporating exercises into the daily schedule could be an easy target."
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1aGGxGH British Journal of Sports Medicine, online October 11, 2013.