We live in an era in which opportunities for physical activity do not arise naturally in the course of daily life. The industrialized way of life and technological advancements contribute to physical inactivity. If we want children to perform the recommended amount of daily physical activity, it is the responsibility of adults to create appropriate conditions for children to have opportunities for movement. Even more effort should be invested in stimulating the desire and motivation of children to be and remain physically active. Although the school environment can be an ideal setting for comprehensive physical activity intervention programs, the pressure on schools to prioritize academic achievement has led many school administrators to view calls for increased physical activity opportunities as unrealistic in the context of limited time and resources. However, the body of evidence, while still developing, is strong enough to support the conclusion that physical activity does not interfere with or take time away from learning. To the contrary, it is beneficial for academic achievement and school success (1,2). These benefits have been recognized by several governmental agencies and professional organizations over the last decade (i.e., the American College of Sports Medicine, the Institute of Medicine, and SHAPE America). Evidence-based position papers issued by such organizations have helped in raising awareness and promoting engagement among school staff and policymakers toward increasing opportunities for physical activity at schools. For example, it is remarkable that, for the first time, a collaborative effort emerged between a leading educational agency (the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) and a national health organization (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), with the joint goal of promoting learning and health through a whole-school, whole-community, whole-child model (WSCC model ).
The present special issue of the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine brings together contributions by leading experts that collectively summarize the state of the art on the benefits and the challenges of promoting and implementing physical activity in the elementary school. The individual articles are expertly introduced in an accompanying editorial by Szabo-Reed, Gorczyca, Ptomey, and Steger. As readers will recognize, the present challenge in this line of investigation is quintessentially translational; a substantial body of evidence has been amassed, multiple converging data sets have been produced, and the potential of this research to benefit the health and educational attainment of children is being recognized by a growing number of relevant organizations. It is now time to translate this work into usable best practices that can be implemented in the school environment (i.e., become fully integrated into daily educational practice and school life).
At present, it is clear that, despite the benefits that children could accrue from physical activity during the school day according to the research literature, the “buy-in” on the part of school staff and policymakers in the direction of implementing comprehensive physical activity programs remains low. For example, according to a document describing strategies for classroom physical activity (4), published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the initiative “Springboard to Active Schools” (a joint effort of the organizations National Network of Public Health Institutes and Health Resources in Action), only 10.7% of school districts require regular classroom physical activity breaks, besides physical education and recess, during elementary school hours (5). Statistics such as this indicates that more work is required. Importantly, this work may need to extend beyond producing and disseminating research evidence that diverse audiences of stakeholders, including parents, school administrators, and classroom teachers, will perceive as compelling.
As a case in point, “lack of time” is often identified by administrators and teachers alike as the main barrier to increasing physical activity in schools (6,7). From the perspective of researchers and practitioners who advocate for more physical activity, the instinctive counterargument is that this concern likely emerges from the lack of perceived value or importance assigned to physical activity. After all, “lack of time” is never used as a reason for excluding math, language arts, or science from the curriculum. The question, however, is whether concerns surrounding “lack of time” can be overcome by producing even more evidence illustrating the impressive and multifaceted benefits of physical activity on the health and well-being of the students. It could be argued that perhaps a more fruitful avenue could be to acknowledge time pressure as a legitimate concern and to work with stakeholders to devise creative and effective time-management solutions.
For example, physical activity breaks and integrated physical activities have been promoted as the main methods of introducing physical activity to the classroom (8). This effort has been based on arguments that, besides helping schoolchildren accumulate more physical activity, they are not detrimental to classroom discipline and may even benefit executive function (including impulse control) and on-task behavior (such as attentional focus). At this point, the path to implementation could benefit from community-engaged mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) research that seeks to uncover solutions to remaining logistical and practical barriers, such as concerns about transition times (i.e., getting children up, arranging them in the limited space of the classroom, demonstrating the activity routine to be performed, and setting back down). Researchers should be prepared to interface with knowledge translation and extension specialists to provide the “missing pieces” of the implementation puzzle. These missing pieces may cover a wide array of services, such as offering digital and print teacher-training materials, developing “tried-and-tested” manual class management procedures, making available professionally produced demonstration videos, and hosting online learning communities on which teachers can exchange ideas, tips, and materials (for examples of comprehensive resources, see the “Move for Thought Pre-K and K” program, http://moveforthought.org, and the Iowa Switch, http://www.iowaswitch.org).
Finally, it is essential for research itself to become more pragmatic and to transition from efficacy to effectiveness trials supplemented by cost-effectiveness studies. This implies that the programs should be delivered by classroom teachers and school staff within the constraints imposed by the everyday reality of schools. As with any pragmatic trial, process evaluation must be a major focus, covering not only implementation extent and fidelity but also perceived feasibility and the level of satisfaction of teachers and students. Constraints and limitations of the school environment, as well as barriers to physical activity, should be identified at several levels, including the intraindividual level, the interindividual level, policy, and physical environment. As the data presented in this special issue illustrate, research shows that increasing the level of physical activity during the school hours is feasible and effective in promoting the health, well-being, and academic performance of children. It is now time to tackle the next major challenge, translating this exciting evidence to practice.
1. Donnelly JE, Hillman CH, Castelli D, et al. Physical activity, fitness, cognitive function, and academic achievement in children: a systematic review. Med Sci Sports Exerc
3. ASCD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whole School, Whole Child, Whole Community: A Collaborative Approach to Learning and Health
. Alexandria (VA): ASCD; 2014.
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Strategies for Classroom Physical Activity in Schools
. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2018.
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Results from the School Health Policies and Practices Study 2016
. Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2017.
6. Naylor PJ, Nettlefold L, Race D, et al. Implementation of school based physical activity interventions: a systematic review. Prev Med
7. Michael RD, Webster CA, Egan CA, et al. Facilitators and barriers to movement integration in elementary classrooms: a systematic review. Res Q Exerc Sport
8. Webster CA, Russ L, Vazou S, Goh TL, Erwin H. Integrating movement in academic classrooms: understanding, applying and advancing the knowledge base. Obes Rev
. 2015;16(8):691–701. doi:10.1111/obr.12285.