Better schoolgrounds and pet dogs improve children’s activity levels

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 17 August 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4487
  1. Janice Hopkins Tanne
  1. 1New York

    Renovated schoolgrounds improve children’s levels of physical activity, a US study has found, and a study carried out in three English cities showed that children whose families owned a dog were more active than other children. Both studies were published in the American Journal of Public Health (doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.178939; doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.188193).

    While at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity are recommended for children to reduce the risk of obesity, only 2% of US public elementary schools provide daily sessions of physical education or its equivalent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    The authors, who are affiliated with the University of Colorado Denver and the University of Hawaii, compared children’s activity levels at nine elementary schools, all in low income areas: three control schools that did not have renovated schoolgrounds, three with schoolgrounds that had been renovated in the past year, and three that had been renovated two or three years ago. The schoolyards that hadn’t been renovated had hard play surfaces such as gravel or concrete, no plantings, and limited play equipment. Renovated schoolyards were part of a programme called Learning Landscapes. All had three areas of age appropriate play equipment, asphalt areas marked for games such as basketball, a grassy multipurpose playing field, typically with a track, and a central gathering space with a structure to provide shade. Trees were planted in the hard surfaces and grassy areas to provide shade.

    A total of 16 505 children were studied, with data collected over four days at each school. Children’s activity levels, measured with heart rate monitors and accelerometers, were categorised as sedentary, moderately active or walking, and very active.

    The amount of energy expended by children was higher at renovated schools (whether newly or previously renovated) than at the control schools (P<0.02), and activity levels remained higher at the renovated schools over time. Other studies have shown that renovations lead to increased activity after school hours as well, they said.

    Meanwhile researchers from St George’s, University of London, and Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge found that children from dog owning families spent more time in light or moderate to vigorous physical activity and recorded higher levels of activity counts per minute and steps per day than children without dogs.

    The researchers studied 2065 children from white European, black African-Caribbean, and south Asian families in London, Birmingham, and Leicester, using activity monitors worn on an elasticised belt during waking hours for three days. Overall 10% of the children had family dogs: 22% of the white European children, 5% of the black children, and 3% of the south Asian children.

    While children in dog owning families were more active, the effect in children was less than that seen in adults, probably because adults are usually responsible for exercising the dog. The increased activity of the children “could reflect active play involving the dog and walking [the dog],” the authors write.

    The findings come as the UK government announced plans to end a programme funding playgrounds in England. The previous Labour government had funded a 10 year, £235m (€285m; $370m) programme to improve children’s play areas by enabling every local council to build 22 new play areas by 2011.

    A letter went out on 14 July from the education secretary, Michael Gove, to directors of children’s services stating that the scheme, along with proposed investments in swimming pools, were on hold. Only those schemes currently under construction will go ahead, pending a review of the financial situation.

    “We are speaking with local authorities,” said a spokesperson from the Department for Education. “We are hoping the schemes can still go ahead, subject to the financial situation.”

    Play England, a charity that campaigns for better play spaces for children, said that the proposed cuts would be a big disappointment to those communities whose plans had yet to be realised.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4487

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