Expert Opinion

Generation inactive

In this blog post Andy Daly-Smith and Dr Zoe Rutherford, Senior Lecturers in Sport, Physical Activity and Health and Jim McKenna, Professor of Physical Activity and Health at Leeds Beckett, reflect on a new government’s report about the physical learning needs of primary school children.
The children who are the focus of ‘Generation Inactive’, a new government report, are the same as the children you packed off to school this morning. This report lends political weight to what the evidence has been showing for some time now; that the physical learning needs of children of primary school age – your children – are woefully under-served. The report signals that even politicians are now recognising that the learning needs of young people will be better met by addressing the brain modifying behaviours that prime all humans for better learning; physical activity is one of those behaviours. Some researchers even argue that it is the primary behaviour governing brain modification because we are designed to move (relatively slowly) for 14 hours each day, solving problems as we move. Perversely, this is directly contrary to how most learning systems structure their environments.

While the report represents a positive step forward in the policy arena, numerous challenges now lay ahead in tackling current practice; that practice has been based on decades of heading in the wrong direction. At best today’s in-training primary teachers receive only 10 hours of Physical Education instruction. Given these shortcomings, sports coaches – often with little or no understanding of the specific developmental needs of young children – are recruited to deliver school PE lessons. As a result, too many children are missing vital opportunities to develop key fundamental movement skills early in life; these developmental ‘windows’ represent once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that cannot be recovered later in life.

In addition to optimising the physical activity opportunities throughout the school day, the report mentions the need to tackle the classroom environment. Across education, including higher education, programme delivery is typically inactive and more often than not learners are required to remain seated. Yet, consistent with the anthropological stance endorsing our inherent need to move, emerging studies show the benefits of active lessons which combine activity with learning curricular content. One recent study compared learning outcomes in active maths versus seated maths. The learning outcomes were the same in both conditions. However, children who were overweight or obese improved most after the active maths session; with (avoidable and modifiable) overweight and obesity far more common in today’s classrooms than ever before, this issue has never been more important.

Introducing active learning together with other physical activity opportunities in the day will not only benefit physical health, it can also build self-control. Self-control is a narrow set of brain-based processes that allow us to regulate ourselves, to override impulses and habitual responses as we work toward long-term goals. Crucially, self-control is a powerful predictive of lifelong health, wealth and happiness. Exciting new research links physical activity with self-control, suggesting a mutually beneficial relationship; more activity brings more self-control, more self-control ensures more activity.

In children – your children – the underlying brain structures that support self-control are still developing and maturing. Physical activity helps to accelerate the normal rates of self-control maturation that accompanies adolescence. These issues also influence the overall ‘climate’ of any learning environment. Low self-control among learners makes them easily distracted, resulting in disengagement and trouble-making.

This adds considerably to teacher workload and to teacher burnout. Worse, learners who demonstrate self-control in class are often overlooked by teachers who are working with the distracted learners. Learning environments based around regular, appropriate physical activity, generate better self-control, support better classroom behaviour and make for better overall learning environments.

It all relies on developing self-control and lack of physical activity is one of worst enemies in that battle.