How Effective Are School Exercise Programs?

Students with a teacher on an outdoor basketball court at a schoolShare on Pinterest
Researchers say exercise programs at schools can help with childhood obesity. Rob and Julia Campbell/Stocksy
  • Researchers say a school-based physical activity program in Slovenia has helped reduce childhood obesity there.
  • They recommend that education officials incorporate exercise programs into their curriculum.
  • However, some experts found flaws in the study and say more research is needed.

Maybe those gym classes in school weren’t such a waste of time after all.

Authors of a new study on childhood obesity say that providing additional physical education to young children is effective in preventing childhood obesity.

The study was published today in Obesity, The Obesity Society’s flagship journal.

The goal of the study was to examine the effectiveness of a real-world, population-scaled, school-based physical activity intervention that provided two to three additional physical education lessons per week to children aged 6 to 14 years in Slovenia.

The study authors concluded that the population-scaled, school-based intervention was effective in preventing and treating obesity.

“The effects were the greatest in children initially presenting with obesity, such that the program was able to benefit children needing support the most,” the study authors concluded.

“Our study proves that a sustainable, long-lasting and well-planed school-based physical activity program at both the individual and the population level is beneficial in preventing and treating childhood obesity, and it is especially helpful to those needing support the most e.g., children with excess weight,” Petra Jurić, DSc, a research associate at the University of Zagreb in Croatia and a corresponding author of the study, told Healthline.

“Our study focused on physical activity only, it proves that changing even one behavior without changing anything else can reverse obesity cases among children and adolescents,” she added. “Therefore, policy-makers and funding bodies should be aware that obesity is a chronic condition that needs to be dealt with over a longer time frame, and that easy solutions and immediate effects are neither realistic nor sustainable.”

“Hopefully our study will start positive changes toward smarter policies where our results will help incentivize people who make decisions to address physical activity more carefully together with other behaviors such as diet and sleep,” Juric said.

Between 2011 and 2018, the Healthy Lifestyle program was a nationwide intervention introduced in 216 Slovenian schools with more than 34,000 participants.

The intervention provided two additional physical education lessons in the first through sixth grades and three additional lessons in the seventh to ninth grades.

Once children obtained written parental consent, their participation was compulsory. The intervention was offered to all children in an individual school and organized as an elective course.

The maximum number of children per class was between 16 and 30.

Maroje Sorić, PhD, the head of the Physical Activity Measurement and Surveillance Laboratory at the University of Zagreb and one of the study’s senior authors, said in a press statement that the study “analyzed only the effectiveness of such a program for obesity prevention, physical activity programs are likely to benefit growth and development, improve fitness, enhance mental health and boost the cognitive performance of the children, and should be a cornerstone of educational and health policies.”

However, some experts on obesity told Healthline that the new study is not ideal.

Dr. Dan Bessesen, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Anschutz Foundation Endowed Chair in Health and Wellness, had some trepidation about the study.

“This is not a definitive study,” Bessesen told Healthline. “It may breathe some life into the idea that school-based interventions could be helpful but given the fact that previous studies have been more rigorous and did not show clear benefits, this study is not a game changer in my opinion.”

Dr. Caroline Apovian, a past president of The Obesity Society and co-director of the Center for Weight Management and Wellness as well as a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts, agreed with Besseson.

Apovian told Healthline that the study “compared those children who volunteered to participate in the exercise program with those who did not volunteer, and found that over the years those who volunteered decreased body mass index (BMI) more than those who did not volunteer.”

But, she added, “They even say in the study that in general over those same years obesity was declining.”

Apovian said the study “falls short” of being a definitive work in this population.

“There is really nothing new here. Exercise is good for you and may even assist in decreasing BMI as seems to be shown here, but to say that it prevents and treats obesity is a wildly exaggerated connection to me. We can poke holes in this study,” she said.

Some of the holes, she added, have to do with study design and analysis of the data, but the biggest hole or gap is between what the study actually shows and what was concluded.

“I do not think this study shows that exercise can prevent and treat obesity in children,” Apovian said. “I think they should have concluded that exercise seems to intensify the background decrease in BMI and that perhaps this was accomplished by influencing those children who would want to exercise by having a time and place for them to do so.”


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