Are our children doing enough physical exercise?

KIds playing football

The importance of sport in the lives of the South African youth has never been greater. Increasing popularity of television, computer, video games and cellular telephone technology contribute to children’s inactive lifestyles. This time could be spent doing some recreational or physical activity. Physical activity has also been associated with psychological benefits in young people by improving their control over anxiety and depression. Similarly, participation in physical activity can assist in the social development of young people by providing opportunities for self-expression, building self-confidence, social interaction and integration. It has also been suggested that physically active young people more readily adopt other healthy behaviours (e.g. avoidance of tobacco, alcohol and drug use) and demonstrate higher academic performance at school. However, in South Africa, the participation of children in sport at school has decreased dramatically and in many schools Physical Education classes are non-existent. There is also less physical activity taking place in the afternoons and on weekends than ever before.

Physical activity is imperative for the total education of primary school learners. It helps them to realise mind-body-soul unity. It also capacitates the child with the ability to seek victory while managing defeat and to become citizens of the world without foregoing their citizenship of their own country. By nature it encourages learners to explore and find their own solutions to their physical movement and physical activity problems. This type of exposure to problem solving activities will assist learners in becoming problem solvers, as they engage in the development of their own solutions, defend their uniqueness and maintain their sense of individuality. Engaging in the problem solving process builds character, as well as boosts the self-image and self-esteem of the individual.

Two components, namely, physical activity and physical movement, are valuable and essential components to the educational experience, as they make a positive contribution to the lives of people. Physical activity and physical movement ensure that while learners are involved in intellectual pursuits, the necessary balance for them to realise their full potential as human beings is provided, as these two components provide the learners with their all important physical experiences.

According to the World Health Organisation and the National Association for Sport & Physical Education (NASPE) , school-aged youth should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate – to vigorous – intensity of physical activity every day. This does not have to be all at once, it could be in 15 minute bursts.

For interest sake and if you want to do this at home, there are a couple of ways of measuring the intensity of physical activity:

1. The talk test method

This method is simple. A person who is active at a light intensity level should be able to sing while doing the activity. One who is active at a moderate intensity level should be able to carry on a conversation comfortably while engaging in the activity. If a person becomes winded, or too out of breath to carry on a conversation, the activity can be considered vigorous.

2. Measuring heart rate

This method determines whether a person’s pulse or heart rate is within the target zone during physical activity.

To measure the moderate-intensity physical activity, a person’s target heart rate should be 50 to 70% of his or her maximum heart rate. This maximum rate is based on the person’s age. An estimate of a person’s maximum age-related heart rate can be obtained by subtracting the person’s age from 220. For example, for a 10-year-old child, the estimated maximum age-related heart rate would be calculated as 220 – 10 years = 210 beats per minute (bpm).

The 50% and 70% levels would be:

50% level: 210 x 0.50 = 105 bpm, and

70% level: 210 x 0.70 = 147 bpm

Thus, moderate-intense physical activity for a 10-year-old child will require that the heart rate remains between 105 and 147 bpm during physical activity.

It has bothered me for some time whether or not the South African schools’ sporting programmes are actually giving our children this optimum amount of physical exercise.

For example:

  • Without taking away the valuable ball skills and etiquette a boy is learning playing cricket, how much of the 4 or so hours spent on the field has his heart rate reached a moderate intensity?
  • How much time do coaches spend explaining and instructing rather than getting the boys’ and girls’ physical intensity (heart rates) up during a physical education lesson or sports practice?
  • Due to timetable restrictions, how often do our boys and girls do 3 to 4 hours of intense physical activity one day, but nothing on another day?

My question to parents is:

Does your son or daughter do more than 60 minutes of some form of moderate-intense physical activity every day? (this includes ‘free play’ at break time) or because he/she has so much on one day, does he/she have days off from physical activity?

My advice to parents is:

Schedule your child’s physical activities / sport as best you can so that they are doing some form of physical activity every day – obviously you will be restricted a little by the schools’ timetable.

  • Go for bike rides as a family.
  • Go for a vigorous walk or easy run with your child after school.
  • There should be vigorous-intensity aerobic activity at least 3 days per week.
  • Play some sort of sport (tennis, squash, swimming) with your child after school – this is a great way for parents and children to bond (quality time).
  • Lead by example. If you as parents are active, so will your children want to be.

Apart from ensuring that the intensity (aerobic) amount is correct there are a number of other factors to take into consideration:

  • Make sure the activities are age-appropriate (e.g. children under the age of 10 should not be running more than 8 – 10 km events)
  • The activities should be enjoyable for the child so that they can learn to love physical activity
  • Offer a variety of exercises to allow them to explore activities that interest them
  • Include muscle strengthening activities, such as gymnastics or push-ups, at least 3 days per week as part of your child’s 60 or more minutes. Children under the age of 16 should only use their body weight for muscle strengthening exercises.
  • Include bone strengthening activities, such as jumping over a rope or running, at least 3 days per week as part of your child’s 60 or more minutes.

We all lead very busy lives and time is precious. However, I firmly believe that as schools, teachers and parents we have a duty to prepare our children for the healthiest lifestyle possible.

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