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  • New Study Says Schools Missing Out on Physical Activity Opportunities

    While adolescents technically get the majority of their moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) at school, when you consider the fact that school is where adolescents spend most of their time in the first place, the actual proportion of that activity isn't all that impressive. But then again, neither are the MVPA numbers for just about any other place they spend their waking hours, according to researchers.

    Those are just 2 of the findings in a new study that used GPS devices and accelerometers to track exactly where and when MVPA took place among 12- to 16-year-olds. The study, e-published ahead of print in Pediatrics (abstract only available for free), tracked the activities of 549 adolescents to get a glimpse of how close the group came to meeting public health guidelines for at least 60 minutes of MVPA per day, and where they experienced the activity. Samples were drawn from the Baltimore-Washington and Seattle-King County metropolitan areas, and included 446 census block regions. Half of the participants were female; 31.3% were nonwhite or Hispanic.

    Overall, what researchers found was not news: the adolescents came up short on meeting MVPA goals, on average attaining only 39.4 minutes per day of this type of activity. Of particular interest to the study's authors, however, were the GPS-generated data that helped them track where the MVPA occurred: at home, at school, near-home (defined as within 1 km of the home), near school (within 1 km of the school), or all other locations. Here's what they found:

    School is where most MVPA happens—but that's not saying much. During the week, participants recorded 42.4% of their overall MVPA at school. The problem, according to researchers, is that school takes up the biggest chunk of an adolescent's waking hours, which means that proportionally speaking, physical activity only makes up about 4.8% of a school day—the lowest proportion in all locations studied.

    Home isn't much better. Participants spent 27.7% of their waking hours at home. During that time, only 5.3% of the time was spent engaged in MVPA.

    Near-home and near-school are higher-proportion MVPA locations. Time spent in near-home locations accounted for 12.6% of waking time, with 9.5% of that time spent in MVPA. Near school locations comprised 3.5% of waking time, and 9.7% of that time consisted of MVPA.

    Other locations were not standouts, either. On average, 14.1% of participant time was spent in other locations, with MVPA occurring at a 7.1% rate during that time.

    Differences surfaced among participants. Although researchers found no significant age, racial, or ethnic disparities, they did record fewer MVPA hours among girls than among boys, with the exception of the near-school location.

    Authors of the study pointed to school as the location with the biggest gap in waking hours vs MVPA, and warned that it was possible that the rate of MVPA might be even lower than the 4.8% recorded, given that the rate may have included sports or afterschool programs—not technically part of the school day.

    But that differential presents an opportunity, they write, noting that "because adolescents spend so much time at school, even a small increase in the proportion of at-school time spent physically active could lead to meaningful increases in overall physical activity and metabolic health." In fact, they add, if the proportion of MVPA were upped to 7.5% of the day—about 4.5 minutes per hour—students could achieve the 30 minutes of MVPA recommended per school day.

    Another promising area, according to the study's authors, are the near-home and near-school locations, where community and neighborhood-based efforts to make physical activity easier and safer—particularly travel to and from school—could pay off.

    "Supporting neighborhood-based activity through organized programs and informal supervision could improve parents' perceptions of safety and may lead them to allow their adolescents to spend more time outdoors being active in the neighborhood," they write. "Increasing active travel remains an intervention priority, because active travel is a significant contributor to overall physical activity, but current rates are low."

    And authors believe health care providers can make a difference.

    "Health care providers can advocate for youth physical activity by engaging in local planning and decision-making processes to increase use of neighborhood locations that support physical activity and to improve facilities and physical activity programs in all settings," they write. "Health care providers can parents to encourage their children to spend less time at home and more time in home and school neighborhoods where youth are more likely to engage in physical activity."

    APTA has long supported the promotion of physical activity and the value of physical fitness, and has representatives on the practice committee of Exercise is Medicine. The association offers several resources on obesity, including continuing education on childhood obesity, and a prevention and wellness webpage that links to podcasts on the harmful effects of inactivity.

    Research-related stories featured in PT in Motion News are intended to highlight a topic of interest only and do not constitute an endorsement by APTA. For synthesized research and evidence-based practice information, visit the association's PTNow website.

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