How to keep students physically active online or in-person
September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Dr. Hildi Nicksic, health education expert, said childhood obesity is an ongoing problem that has not been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but exacerbated by circumstances surrounding it.
Nicksic, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology, said maintaining physical activity for children during this time is important in keeping childhood obesity rates at bay.
“On a population-wide level, we are seeing diminished physical activity levels, altered dietary habits including consumption of excess calories, and heightened stress and anxiety, all of which increase the risk of obesity,” Nicksic said. “Children may be at additional risk due to their lack of autonomy.”
Last spring, Nicksic shared how physical activity could be incorporated into distance education. Now, she hopes to share how schools that are welcoming students back to campus can safely integrate physical activity in the classroom and in the gym.
Nicksic said physical activity does not require personal contact, therefore there are numerous options for students to engage in safe, “space bubble” movement.
“Given that teachers are needing to consider alternative seating arrangements to meet the physical distancing requirements, there may actually be more room for activity in the classroom – across all levels of education,” Nicksic said.
Chair dips, jumping jacks, squats, stretching poses and arm circles are just a few of the many movements that students can complete in a confined space.
Some districts have had to cancel physical education classes due to disease transmission concerns and budgetary cuts. For programs allowed to continue, Nicksic said this is an ideal time to focus on skill-building and teaching technique, as many movements can be practiced individually and independently.
“For example, for a tennis unit, breaking down the mechanics of different swings and having students practice their form is a physically distanced activity, as are stationary dribbling drills in a basketball unit,” Nicksic said.
She warns that extra precaution should be taken with activities involving balls, as they can roll away causing students to break physical distancing to retrieve them. She advises setting clear expectations for how students should react, and implementing systematic disinfection of equipment between students.
Still learning at home?
For students continuing distance education, Nicksic said their environment directly affects their activity levels. Something as simple as walking to the bathroom at home versus at school generates less steps due to the size of the home.
“In addition to a larger setting, the potential benefit of a return to school is an increase in support for movement, if teachers offer opportunities for activity in the classroom and/or if students are allowed to engage in traditionally-offered school-based physical activity opportunities,” Nicksic said.
However, by learning at home, students technically have more time to engage in physical activity. Parents and distance learning educators should encourage students to utilize this extra time for non-sedentary activities.
“It is critical to recognize that we are already asking an inordinate amount from our public school teachers right now as they are facing a nearly impossible task with substantial additional burden,” Nicksic said.
Therefore, she encourages teachers to keep it simple, but be creative in supporting and facilitating physical activity among students in web-based classes.
For example, in her virtual classroom she has students stand while discussing a prompt in a small “breakout” group. Even something as simple as changing from seated to upright and back facilitates blood flow and resets attention.
In supporting healthy behavior at home, Nicksic recognizes there are also increased challenges for parents. If a family is experiencing financial hardship and struggling to simply put food on the table, they can’t be expected to be overly concerned about the nutritional content of that food, or with developing intricate physical activities for their children.
She encourages both teachers and parents to utilize available resources, such as those compiled on her Classrooms in Motion™ website, to incorporate more physical activity for students.
“One thing that I think is important to add is that although it is clear that the ramifications of COVID-19 on public health are staggering, there are those who have used this pandemic as a catalyst to enhance healthy behaviors,” Nicksic said.
Nicksic said it is also important that students garner social support from one another during class interactions, whether in-person or virtually.
“These connections help bolster students during these challenging times and support engagement in healthy behaviors,” Nicksic said.
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