The primary aim of this study was to evaluate the efficacy of a novel, multifaceted school-based intervention on health- and skill-related fitness measures in primary school children. The FIT program was found to be a safe, effective, and worthwhile method of conditioning for children that provided opportunities for participants to improve cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness. Treatment effects were found for both health- and skill-related fitness measures, and no injuries occurred throughout the training period. Given that the FIT program was designed to keep participants active during PE while engaging in meaningful activities that enhanced muscle strength and movement proficiency, these data provide support for incorporating a time-efficient FIT intervention into primary school PE to enhance children's physical fitness.
A novel finding from the present investigation was that ∼15 minutes of FIT performed twice per week resulted in significantly greater gains in health- and skill-related fitness measures than normally achieved with standard PE in 9- to 10-year old children. The effects of FIT across multiple health and fitness domains were particularly encouraging. Since both groups participated in the same traditional PE lessons with the same PE teacher during the study period, such differences in performance are likely due to the specific training adaptations that resulted from FIT. Of note, the FIT intervention was instructed by a qualified PE teacher and was purposely designed to enhance muscular strength and refine fundamental movement skills while requiring mental engagement and decision making due to the design of the FIT circuit. Integrative training programs that are matched with the cognitive abilities of children can be particularly beneficial because the motor capabilities of youth are highly “plastic” and responsive to this type of training (31). Others reported that combining developmentally appropriate physical activities with instruction and interaction from a qualified teacher is likely to yield the most physical, cognitive, and affective benefits for children (42).
The FIT program alternated between relatively vigorous exercises (e.g., fitness rope slams) and less intense but challenging exercises (e.g., spooner board surfing), which provided a unique training stimulus. Although continuous activity is more established as a training mode to improve cardiorespiratory endurance, our findings indicate that intermittent activities which include low and high intensity bouts of strength and skill-based exercise can improve aerobic capacity in children. Since a strong and stable trunk will allow for optimal force production and postural control in a gravity-based environment (33), the observed gains in upper body strength and single-leg hop performance in our investigation may have influenced the positive adaptations in aerobic endurance. Previous studies support our findings and demonstrate that the aerobic fitness levels of children can improve relatively quickly after interventions that include engaging and enjoyable activities that enhance muscular strength and motor skill competence (10,11,27). For example, primary school children who participated in an 8-week plyometric program during PE made significant improvements in endurance performance after the intervention (11). Others found significant improvements in shuttle run performance after an 8-week circuit weight training program in 10- to 12-year old children in the PE setting (27). These findings demonstrate that higher intensity bouts of muscular fitness training that are mainly anaerobic in nature can induce favorable changes in aerobic fitness—especially when the program is delivered by a qualified PE teacher.
Our findings regarding muscular fitness are in line with a recent international consensus paper on youth resistance training, which states that children can enhance their muscular strength, muscular power, and local muscular endurance by regular participation in a resistance training program (23). Participation in the FIT program resulted in significantly greater gains in the push-up and single-leg hop tests than CON, which is consistent with others reports that noted significant gains in upper body strength and motor performance in children after structured resistance training (13,22). These positive findings indicate that muscular fitness can be safely enhanced when FIT is incorporated into PE within curricular time and are in support of recommendations to include strength development during school-based PE so all children can be targeted (24).
The lack of treatment effects for the long jump test and sit-up test may be attributed to the quality of PE lessons for the CON group, which involved traditional PE games and sport activities that required jumping, twisting, and sprinting. The FIT program did target muscular fitness—especially muscular power and torso (i.e., abdominal, hip, and lower back) strength; however, gains made by the CON group were observable after the study period. These observations indicate that the design of the intervention may be a critical factor for success. In the present investigation, children in the FIT group participated in about 240 minutes of training (∼15 min per class × 2 classes per week × 8 weeks) over the study period. Although the advantage of a short concentrated lesson in primary school PE is that children remain engaged and eagerly complete all activities before they lose interest, the disadvantage is that desired changes in some fitness measures may not be observed.
Subjects in the FIT group made significant improvements on the sit and reach test, although static stretching was not part of PE for the FIT or CON groups during the study period. Although these findings highlight the value of dynamic movements, they also question the necessity of supplemental flexibility exercises in FIT interventions because time is limited. Others noted improvements in flexibility after fitness training in children (12,38). The curricular time available for additional training is an important consideration when FIT is incorporated into PE.
An emerging body of evidence increasingly supports the need for school-age youth to improve their muscular strength and enhance their motor skill performance (1,19,34). The inclusion of muscle-strengthening activities as part of comprehensive school physical activity guidelines demonstrates the importance of this type of intervention for all youth (40). Most of the FIT exercises were challenging and tended to spark a natural desire to engage in high-energy “play” in children. Because primary school children are still learning how to manipulate their bodies through space, FIT that emphasizes the development of basic conditioning movements in a supportive environment can be an effective approach for improving the physical fitness of school-age youth. Of note, recent investigations have found that motor skill proficiency is a predictor of physical activity in children and adolescents (4,25,32). Furthermore, children with higher motor competence have been found to outperform children with lower motor competence on physical fitness tests, and these differences seem to remain stable over time (14,17). Given that physical activity declines rapidly after puberty (45), fitness programs that specifically target exercise deficits in school-age youth should begin early in life before children become resistant to targeted interventions.
A limitation of this study is that it addressed only the initial phase of FIT in 9- to 10-year old children. Thus, the results from this investigation neither applicable to younger children or adolescents nor do the results provide insight into long-term training adaptations. It was not possible to include a no-PE control group in the school setting as PE is a compulsory subject in this school district. Also, the small effect sizes should be considered in light of the target group and the design of the school-based intervention.
The findings from the present investigation indicate that FIT instructed by a qualified PE teacher can result in significant improvements in health- and skill-related fitness components in children, and is a safe, enjoyable, and time-efficient method for children to learn meaningful context in PE. The salient findings from the present investigation indicate that ∼15 minutes of FIT performed twice weekly results in significantly greater gains in selected health- and skill-related fitness measures than gains normally achieved with traditional PE. Multifaceted interventions such as FIT may be an important component of youth strength and conditioning programs because the synergistic relationship between muscular fitness, motor skill performance, and physical activity may strengthen over time, and this may help to reinforce and maintain the desired trajectories in physical activity behaviors. The positive results from this study can be used to inform the design and implementation of future interventions which are needed to assess the long-term effects of FIT on health and fitness outcomes in school-age youth.
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