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Physical activity a step forward for the health and educational attainment of Tasmanian children

Physical activity could play an important role in improving the academic performance of Tasmanian school students, says an internationally-recognised obesity expert.

In a keynote address on the final day of Education Transforms 2017 in Hobart today, the University of Tasmania's Professor Andrew Hills said Tasmanian children would benefit from a more active curriculum.

“Because children spend so much time at school, schools have a unique opportunity to help children become more physically active before, during and after school,” Professor Hills said. “I would urge all schools to look to all the practical things that could be done to encourage physical activity.

“We have got to be more innovative and not restricted to the traditional times in which physical activity is supported.

“We make it more difficult for ourselves as adults by forcing young people to sit still and not move, and then wonder why there are challenges for young people to relate to physical activity.”

A world-leading clinician, researcher and advocate in public health, particularly in the prevention and management of obesity, Professor Hills joined the University of Tasmania last year as Professor of Sports and Exercise Science at Newnham. He was previously Professor of Allied Health Research at Mater Mothers’ Hospital in Brisbane and Honorary Professor at the University of Queensland’s Mater Research Institute.

Professor Hills said that along with well-publicised health complications, obesity during the growing years had the potential to affect educational attainment and quality of life. Just like nutritious food early in the day, physical activity assists concentration and engagement in the learning environment.

“There is a growing body of evidence indicating that regular participation in physical activity and higher levels of physical fitness benefits both the health and academic performance of children,” he said.

Professor Hills said the environment for most children today was very different from the one he experienced growing up in Hobart. Typically both parents were working and a shortage of time and heightened parental concerns for safety had created a more regimented environment. He said children were spending a lot more time indoors, often on screens.

“Far too many children are immersed from a very young age in a sedentary, energy-laden environment and actively discouraged from engaging in physical activity,” he said. “We were sent outside and told to come back at lunch or dinner time.”

Professor Hills said for many children their only significant physical activity was organised sport, which was not attractive to all.

“The opportunity for those that are more capable is one thing, but everyone else shouldn’t fall by the wayside,” he said.

“Some form of physical activity to a reasonable level should be provided to everybody. That isn’t the case, otherwise we wouldn’t have the problems we do.”

One-third of Tasmanian children are overweight or obese.

Professor Hills said walking or riding a bike to school was one simple way for children to undertake regular exercise.

“It wouldn’t be a safety concern if everyone was doing it,” he said. “A small group of parents could ride with them on a rotational basis.

“Why not drop the kids off 500m from the school? It is documented that one of the most dangerous places for children is the drop-off zones at schools.”

ET 17 is the second international symposium of the Peter Underwood Centre and brings together key stakeholders to share and reflect on insights about the collective mission to raise aspirations for educational attainment.

Launched in February 2015, the Peter Underwood Centre is a partnership between the University of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Government in association with the Office of the Governor of Tasmania.

Published on: 14 Jul 2017 12:51pm