HomeScienceSport at school, an ally against obesity

    Sport at school, an ally against obesity

    Tin thousand steps and more… How can increased physical activity in schools reverse obesity trends? Nearly one in three European children aged 7 to 9 (31% of boys and 28% of girls) is overweight, and of those, 11.6% are obese, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, published in 2021. The figure was one in four in 2010. This increase isn’t just in Europe. Obesity rates among children and adolescents worldwide shifted from less than 1% in 1975 to nearly 6% among girls and 8% among boys in 2016.

    A study, published on February 22, in the journal obesity, was conducted by research teams from the Universities of Zagreb (Croatia) and Ljubljana (Slovenia). It showed that two to three additional physical education (PE) lessons per week prevented childhood obesity in children aged 6 to 14 years attending Slovenian schools.

    From 2011 to 2018, 34,000 students from 216 Slovenian schools participated in this program called Healthy Lifestyle. They attended two extra weekly PE sessions, which is about an extra hour per day. The sessions were in addition to the regular PE classes, and took place after school hours. Different sports were offered, with each teacher free to choose the activity content.

    Children were categorized according to their weight (normal, overweight, obese) and compared to a control group that “only” had the standard PE classes. The conclusion was that those who had followed the program saw their body mass index (weight divided by the square of the height in meters) drop from the third year onwards. It reached a peak improvement of 1.4 kg per square meter for girls and 0.9 kg per square meter for boys, with improvement strongest in children affected by obesity. “A healthy lifestyle is effective in reversing obesity, reaching its maximum effectiveness after five years of participation,” the authors observed.

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    A pivotal period

    “This is a very interesting study, showing the importance of program duration in promoting physical activity to combat overweight and obesity in children. It also shows the importance of the school environment. It’s an essential playground,” noted Jérémy Vanhelst, of the nutritional epidemiology research team (Inserm, INRAE, CNAM, Sorbonne Paris Nord University). “This is a pivotal period during which lifestyle habits are being built and are established to last right up to adulthood,” continued the researcher. He had already coordinated a study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics in 2015, showing that moderate physical activity has a beneficial effect on attention in adolescents aged 12 to 17. The home environment is also very important in children’s physical activity, he points out today. Reversing trends is essential, and this is the challenge of the 30-minute physical activity program at school, something which was rolled out across France in September 2022.

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