Written by Kevin Cann
As summer draws to an end, kids everywhere are getting ready to go back to school. Long days of sitting behind a desk and listening to a teacher for 6 plus hours are about to start. As the father of a 7 year old, getting a kid to sit still for that period of time is a miracle on its own. I guess if they don’t listen the teachers will tell their parents to check them for attention deficit disorder (ADD), so that they can be put on meds and sit still all day. That is a story for another day though.
As a nation we are fighting an obesity epidemic. As a country we continue to get bigger and bigger which comes at a cost, both financially and to quality of life. The majority of us know that obesity increases our risk for most diseases of modern society such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. All of these diseases cost money to treat. The greater amount of people that are overweight and obese, the higher the risks of these diseases, and the greater the cost.
The healthcare system cannot continue in the same direction it currently is, or our children will face economical hardships that we have only read about. And if trends continue in the same direction, they will be overweight and broke. We all know that being sedentary is a major factor of weight gain. We attempt to tell our children to be more active, but then we go and force them to sit still in a classroom all day bored out of their minds.
The schools then feed them processed crap, they get a boost of energy, and we set the stage for them to eat junk food throughout the day for energy because they have to have their 2 snacks per day which for most kids consists of fruit snacks and juice boxes. Of course both are made from 100% fruit juice so it is healthy.
My daughter is 7 years old and has gym class 2 times per week for roughly 45 minutes. They also have recess daily for 20 minutes. Out of the 30 hours she spends in school, 3 hours are spent running around and being a kid while 27 hours are spent sitting down and being still. This does not even include the time that children spend behind a computer and playing video games. We are teaching our children from a young age how to get fat.
A recent study performed in Canada suggested that frequent breaks in sedentary behavior lowered risk factors for obesity and diabetes greater than total duration (1). Basically, this is saying that gym class 2 times per week for 45 minutes long is not cutting it. This research suggested that these frequent bouts only needed to last 1-4 minutes to have a positive effect on the children.
This may even make the classroom more fun and interactive. Exercise has even been shown to increase children’s cognitive development and academic success (2). Spending that extra time in the classroom is not making them smarter. It is setting them up to be overweight later in life, or for the 11% diagnosed with ADHD, that they need medications because they are not normal for wanting to move around.
These medications come with side effects. Here is the list of side effects for a common prescribed medication, Ritalin: anxiety, nervousness, agitation, insomnia, stomach pain, loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, palpitations, headaches, vision problems, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, skin rash, and psychosis. There are no side effects to clearing up a child’s diet and having them exercise more. In fact, exercise has even been shown to help treat the symptoms of ADHD in children (3).
Longer days sitting in a classroom are not the answer to greater health and academic success. This does not mean that they need to play dodge ball every day for an hour (although I do not see a problem with this). Why not get the kids outside and teach them how to grow a garden. This can be physically active, teach them a life skill, and maybe even get them to eat more fruits and vegetables. It also creates a community between the students and teaches them teamwork.
Why not take them outside on a hike through the woods and have them identify plants and animals in nature? Make it a more interactive classroom. A frog is much more exciting in person then it is pictured in the pages of a textbook. This is also physically active and they even get some vitamin D out of it.
Under the current educational structure the United States ranks 30th in the world in math, 23rd in science, and 20th in reading comprehension (4). These numbers continue to fall. This is a clear cut sign that it is time for a change.
Increasing physical activity time in the classroom for children may be a way in which we can help turn around the obesity epidemic and also improve their cognitive development and academic success. We know the importance of physical activity for health, but yet we medicate our children that move too much. Instead of medicating children and forcing them to be still, we can harness that youthful energy into making the classroom a more fun and interactive place where real learning can happen.