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This article was originally published in Italian on Univadis.

“To provide guidance to parents, educators, policymakers, researchers, and healthcare providers” ― this was the main objective of the Sedentary Behavior Research Network (SBRN) team that guided the development of the recommendations published in International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

The article, “International School-Related Sedentary Behavior Recommendations for Children and Youth,” was written by researchers led by Travis J. Saunders, PhD, cozaar gamma gt associate professor of applied human sciences at the University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, Canada. Based on work carried out by a panel of international experts and informed by the best available evidence and stakeholder consultation, “these recommendations will be useful in supporting the physical and mental health, well-being, and academic success of school-age children and youth,” according to the authors.

The key strength of their work, they write, is that it is based on robust scientific data and specifically refers to school-related sedentary behaviors, whether these occur during lessons in the classroom or while completing assignments at home. “Existing sedentary behavior guidelines for children and youth target overall sedentary behavior and recreational screen time, without any specific recommendations regarding school-related sedentary behaviors.” The article also mentions the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lack of movement was already a problem in these age groups; social distancing and distance-learning over such an extended period only made things worse.

Risks and Benefits

Saunders and his colleagues write, “The relationships between sedentary behaviors and student health and academic outcomes are complex and likely differ for specific sedentary behaviors.”

While on one hand, sedentary behavior may have a significant negative impact on metabolic outcomes, there is evidence that higher durations of homework and reading are associated with better academic achievement among school-aged children.

Another example of this complexity is that screen-based sedentary behaviors (spending time in front of computer screens, TVs, tablets, smartphones) often demonstrate deleterious associations with a range of health outcomes among school-aged children and youth aged 5–18 years, including body composition, cardiometabolic risk, and self-esteem. Yet screen-based devices may offer opportunities for novel pedagogic approaches and student engagement and may increase access to education for some students, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The researchers note that “many common sedentary activities…do not have to be sedentary in nature. These behaviors are only considered to be sedentary when combined with both low energy expenditure and a sitting, reclining, or lying posture.” As an example, they point out that “active video gaming, or paper-based work at a standing desk, are both ways that common sedentary behaviors can be made non-sedentary.”

One thing’s for sure: kids and teenagers don’t move around all that much.

Data from the 2019 Eye on Health survey found that 1 of 5 children (20.3%) had not engaged in any physical activity the day before the survey, almost half (43.5%) had a TV in their bedroom, and about the same number (44.5%) spent more than 2 hours a day in front of a screen.

As for schools, the survey showed that while 93% had initiatives to promote physical activity, fewer than 30% of these programs involved parents. It should be kept in mind that these are prepandemic numbers.

“A Healthy School Day”

The authors recommend the following for reducing school-related sedentary behavior:

  • Break up periods of extended sedentary behavior with both scheduled and unscheduled movement breaks.

    • At least once every 30 minutes for ages 5–11 years.

    • At least once every hour for ages 12–18 years.

    • Consider activities that vary in intensity and duration (eg, standing, stretching breaks, moving to another classroom, active lessons, active breaks).

  • Incorporate different types of movement into homework whenever possible, and limit sedentary homework to no more than 10 minutes per day per grade level (for example, no more than 10 minutes per day in grade 1, or 60 minutes per day in grade 6).

  • Regardless of the location, school-related screen time should be meaningful, mentally or physically active, and serve a specific pedagogic purpose that enhances learning, compared with alternative methods. When school-related screen time is warranted, the following are recommended:

    • Limit time on devices, especially for students 5–11 years of age.

    • Take a device break at least once every 30 minutes.

    • Discourage media-multitasking in the classroom and while doing homework.

    • Avoid screen-based homework within an hour of bedtime.

    • Replacing sedentary learning activities with movement-based learning activities (including standing) and replacing screen-based learning activities with non–screen-based learning activities (eg, outdoor lessons) can further support students’ health and well-being.

    • “Given the important role that schools can play in the promotion of healthy behaviors,” Saunders and his team write, “we encourage national and international public health agencies to consider inclusion of specific recommendations related to the school environment in future sedentary behavior guidelines.” In support of this goal, the authors provide strategies for implementing the recommendations into the daily schedule.

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