Give kids more physical-education classes in school, and they'll be healthier and form good habits for a lifetime. It seems like a simple solution to ever-rising rates of obesity – almost too simple. Indeed, multiple studies involving thousands of children have failed to find any consistent effect of increased phys ed on waistlines.
But new results from a long-running Australian mega-study suggest that not all phys ed is created equal. Specialized teaching, combined with a focus on lasting activity patterns rather than immediate fitness benefits, produced measurable gains in health and academic performance that emerged after several years – a finding that ties into an ongoing debate about who should teach phys ed in elementary schools.
The Lifestyle of Our Kids (LOOK) trial kicked off in 29 primary schools in Canberra in 2005 with just over 700 eight-year-olds. The schools were randomized into two groups: Over the next four years, half of them continued with the normal phys ed curriculum of 150 minutes a week, while the other half received two 50-minute weekly sessions taught by an external specialist phys ed teacher (replacing 100 minutes of "normal" phys ed taught by their usual homeroom teacher).
So what difference did having a specialist teacher from Grades 2 to 6 make? The researchers have published 25 studies so far, and continue to monitor the subjects, who are now 15 and in high school. The most recent study, published online in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, looked at insulin resistance: By Grade 6, the proportion of kids with a "risky" level of insulin resistance was one-third lower in the specialist group.
Previous analyses have also shown that the kids receiving specialized instruction had lower body-fat percentage and LDL cholesterol, and better scores on standardized numeracy and literacy tests.
Given that these improvements were achieved with no change in the time allotted to phys ed, the results may conjure images of stern taskmasters pushing their pre-adolescent charges to the limits of physical endurance. But the truth is just the opposite.
"Not once did they get the kids to run laps," says Dr. Richard Telford, the director of the LOOK study. "In comparison, the control group [with non-specialist teachers] always started with a run around the oval."
Now at Australian National University, Telford spent several decades at the nearby Australian Institute of Sport, where he first headed the elite sports physiology program and later led Australia's long-distance running program. Two of the athletes he currently coaches competed in last summer's Olympic marathon, so he has no objection to running laps – under the right circumstances.
In the context of elementary-school phys ed, he says, "the aim is not to get kids fitter or better at sports; it's to develop a lifelong love of physical activity."
The specialist teachers focused on balance and co-ordination, core movement, body awareness and other basic physical skills, progressing from simple yoga-like poses to complex (and locally relevant) manoeuvres like the "surfers' movement," springing powerfully from the ground into a crouch. Group games were designed to challenge each student individually rather than crowning winners and losers.
The teachers logged outcomes from each class, taught the same students for multiple years and often participated in the games themselves, following a curriculum developed by the Australian non-profit Bluearth Foundation. Many of the goals and techniques outlined in this curriculum are echoed in standard curricula in Australia, Canada and elsewhere. But it has proven difficult for non-specialist teachers to successfully organize and execute these plans while also juggling the demands of the rest of the day.
In Ontario, a recent report from the advocacy group People for Education found that just 45 per cent of elementary schools have a specialist phys ed teacher, and most of those are part-time. Amid competing priorities for ever-scarcer resources, increasing that number will be a hard sell.
But as the LOOK trial continues to follow its subjects through high school and beyond, Telford hopes that the lasting effects of this relatively subtle intervention will provide ammunition for proponents of more and better phys ed.
"We need hard evidence like this to take to politicians and policy-makers," he says.
PHYS ED: BEYOND SPORTS
The Australian study finds benefits in a modified phys ed curriculum. Here are some of the activities:
In this group game, each student picks two other students without telling anyone: One is their "crocodile" and the other is their "net." When the game starts, everyone attempts to move so that their net is between them and their crocodile. When the whistle blows, anyone who isn't in the right position gets eaten.
Goals: The game requires speed and agility. Since each student's crocodile and net remain secret, the competition is unpredictable.
Lying face down, place your hands on the ground, with elbows bent, under your shoulders. Push down hard to extend your arms while lifting your head and chest; swing your feet underneath. Land in a crouch and hang 10.
Goals: This dynamic-movement drill develops strength and rhythm.
Rotated single-leg balance
Stand straight with feet together. With hands on hips, bend forward and lift your left leg up behind you at a 90-degree angle. Put your left hand on the floor, then straighten your right leg as much as is comfortable (rest your left hand on an elevated block if needed). Rotate your right shoulder upward, pointing your right arm to the ceiling. Hold the pose, then return slowly to upright and repeat on the opposite side.
Goals: Strengthen the abs, ankles and thighs; increase hamstring and spinal flexibility; improve co-ordination and balance; still the mind.
Alex Hutchinson blogs about exercise research at sweatscience.runnersworld.com. His latest book is Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?