Promoting a Culture of Movement in School-Related Activities

It’s been on the news, in the papers, and it should come as no surprise that movement is good for our bodies, makes us feel better, and promotes our ability to learn and be productive. But despite that, a typical school day still tends to be largely sedentary, with screen time taking on an increasingly important role for many students since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sedentary behaviour (i.e. sitting while burning few calories) is a normal part of the school day, and screens offer novel teaching opportunities, especially during online learning.  But research suggests that too much sedentary behaviour (and especially screen time) negatively impacts students’ physical and mental health, their behaviour, and their academic performance.  

School administrators and educational workers are uniquely positioned to help address the harmful aspects of sedentary behaviour and promote healthy movement behaviours.  By shifting teachers’ practice from sedentary to active learning approaches and focusing on using screens only when they are the best pedagogical tool available, we can support student health, behaviour and learning outcomes.  As we reflect on the past two years and look to the future, a key question is: how can principals, teachers, and students maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of school-related sedentary behaviour?

To address this question, the Sedentary Behaviour Research Network (SBRN) convened an international panel of experts to summarize the available evidence on sedentary behaviour and student health, prepare draft recommendations, and consult stakeholders from 23 countries.  The result is the world’s first evidence-based recommendations specific to school-related sedentary behaviours.  They apply to children and youth attending school (typically 5–18 years of age) inclusive of gender, culture, nationality, and socio-economic status.  They provide guidance on how much sedentary behaviour is too much and kick-start a new set of classroom norms around movement and lesson plans that incorporate movement, including school-related activities such as homework.

The recommendations state that a healthy day should include 4 key components:

1. Breaking up periods of extended sedentary behaviour with both scheduled and unscheduled movement:

  • At least once every 30 minutes for ages 5–11 years
  • At least once every hour for ages 12–18 years 

These breaks can be at any intensity, and can include things like standing, a light walk around the classroom or to another class, or a structured bout of organized physical activity.  Allowing students to self-regulate their sedentary behaviour by allowing them to stand or move within the classroom are simple ways to allow students to minimize their sedentary behaviour when they feel the need.

2. Incorporating different types of movement into homework whenever possible and limiting sedentary homework to no more than 10 minutes per day, per grade level (e.g. no more than 10 minutes/day in grade 1, and no more than 120 minutes/day in grade 12).

Research shows that homework can support student learning, but only up to a point.  The benefits of homework are clearer for secondary school students, but less clear for primary students. Too much homework can leave students without enough time for other important behaviours like sleep, physical activity, or time with friends. Incorporating activity into homework is one way to improve student health and academic success at the same time.

3. Regardless of the location, school-related screen time should be meaningful, mentally or physically active, and serve a specific pedagogical purpose that enhances learning compared to alternative methods. When school-related screen time is warranted:

  • Limit time on devices, especially for students 5–11 years of age. 
  • Take a device break at least once every 30 minutes.
  • Discourage media multi-tasking in the classroom and while doing homework.
  • Avoid screen-based homework within an hour of bedtime.

Canadian students already get several hours each day of recreational screen time, on average, which is associated with a range of negative health outcomes including decreased academic achievement, physical fitness, self-esteem and sleep, along with increased risk of depression. Educational staff should be encouraged to use screens in the classroom only when they are the best tool for the job, and to build in frequent breaks when screens are used. Avoiding using screens for classroom management, during meals, or as the default method of content delivery are key starting points for all teachers and staff to be aware of.  See below for a list of suggested best practices for school-related screen use.

4. Replacing sedentary learning activities with movement-based learning activities and replacing screen-based learning activities with non-screen-based learning activities can further support students’ health and wellbeing.

The “biggest bang for our buck” comes when a movement-based learning activity replaces a sedentary or screen-based activity, rather than displacing a movement-focused activity such as quality physical education/activity.

Physically active students are healthier and learn better.  Working physical activity into the school day will support their learning and their health.

How can these recommendations be implemented?

Principals can implement these recommendations by providing clear guidance to teachers on appropriate and inappropriate use of sedentary behaviour and screens within the school day.  To implement in your school, the SBRN suggests using the Four M’s approach, which was initially developed by the Canadian Pediatric Society:

1. Manage sedentary behaviour.

  •  See above recommendations

2. Encourage Meaningful screen use.

  • Prioritize face-to-face interactions over screen use.
  • Use screens when they are the best pedagogical tool for the job and likely to enhance learning.
  • Prioritize screens for mental and physical engagement, rather than for passive viewing.
  • Turn screens off when not in use, including background TV or videos while doing school or homework.
  • Avoid screen use during meal and snack times.
  • Avoid using screens as the default method for content delivery or classroom management. 
  • Encourage students to review and self-regulate their screen use, and plan time for outdoor play and physical activity.

3. Educators, healthcare providers, parents and caregivers should Model healthy and meaningful screen use.

4. Monitor for signs of problematic screen use and encourage parents and caregivers to follow up with a physician or healthcare provider if concerns are noted. Signs of problematic screen use can include:

  • Complaints about being bored or unhappy without access to technology
  • Difficulty accepting screen time limits
  • Screen use that interferes with school, family activities, sleep, physical activity, offline play, or face-to-face interactions
  • Negative emotions following time spent playing video games, texting or using social media

The Canadian Healthy School Standards also point the way for school administrators and healthy school champions to build or grow a culture of movement within their schools.  A Healthy School includes attention to sedentary behaviour across the school day, and support from school leadership sets the tone among the school community that health, wellbeing, and a culture of movement are highly valued. 

Where can I find more information on the recommendations?

The recommendations are available in more than a dozen languages at sedentarybehaviour.org.
Some parts of this article have been adapted from articles published on phecanada.ca and in the PHE Journal.

By: Travis Saunders (Associate Professor, University of PEI) and Melanie Davis (Executive Director, PHE Canada)

Travis Saunders is an Associate Professor of Applied Human Science at the University of Prince Edward Island.  He is the co-founder of the Sedentary Behaviour Research Network, and chaired the development of these new recommendations for school-related sedentary behaviours.  Melanie Davis is the Executive Director at Physical and Health Education and a champion for ensuring all children lead healthy, active lives. 

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