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Physical literacy is as important as literacy in language, music, and mathematics. However, today’s children are becoming less physically literate, which could shorten their lifespan as much as 5 years less than their parents’. That was a point made in “Push Play: The Rise of Physical Therapy in the Physical Literacy Movement,” presented June 22 at NEXT 2017. The presenters were Christy Zwolski, PT, DPT, and Derek Roylance, PT, DPT, both with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Zwolski said that physical literacy extends beyond sports: “Physical literacy is the ability, confidence, and desire to be physically active for life.”

Although stating that “Humans are designed to move,” Zwolski noted that physical activity declined 32% from 1965 to 2009, and is projected to decline 46% from 1965 to 2030. The decline is occurring in all activity areas: occupational, domestic, transportation, and active leisure.

The decline in activity also occurs as children age. At age 9, boys participate in approximately 190 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) a day. Girls engage in approximately 170 minutes of MVPA. By age 15, boys engage in less than 60 minutes, and girls are physically active for barely 30 minutes per day.

Zwolski attributed part of the decline to a breakdown in the physical literacy cycle, in which desire and motivation lead to participation. Participation leads to ability, the “competence to move.” Ability, in turn, leads to confidence, which reinforces desire and motivation. She cited research suggesting that while confidence in performing activity is relatively high among 9-year-old boys and girls, by age 13 girls’ confidence has dropped sharply. Boys’ confidence remains fairly stable.

Girls don’t perform as well as boys in many tests of motor competence, such as kick ball, 1-handed catch, and overhand throw, Zwolski said. (They do better than boys in skipping.) Further, girls’ performance lags further behind boys’ as girls age and begin to “disassociate physical activity with happiness.”

Movement skills, she said, form the foundation for many lifelong activities. For example, when a child learns how to run, he or she can enjoy soccer, basketball, lacrosse, and tennis. Similarly, children who develop balancing skills can enjoy hiking, football, snowboarding, Zumba, and yoga. If basic skills aren’t developed in childhood, though, it becomes far more difficult to learn those other sports. He said physical literacy should be emphasized before sport-specific skills.

Roylance presented a case series on promoting physical literacy in the community. Saying, “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he explained that he consulted with a community relations specialist who already had identified programs involving youth physical activity. These ranged from a hospital lecture series on parenting skills to a baseball clinic sponsored by the Cincinnati Reds for children and their parents. Other programs included a health fair and a middle school field day.


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