Youth health and academic success | More physical education, please!

We learned in The Press recently, conclusive and compelling data, that the level of cardiorespiratory endurance of young people aged 6 to 17 has been declining for 40 years.1 As a reminder, this determinant of physical condition is a scientifically recognized predictor of an individual’s future cardiovascular health.

We also learned that, during the same period, at equal height, the young people gained, on average, 7 kg. We can assume that it is not 7 kg of muscle. In fact, the rate of abdominal obesity (the most detrimental to metabolic health) has more than doubled since then in young and old alike. However, physical inactivity and weight gain increase the risk of developing metabolic diseases (type 2 diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis, etc.). And what about the risk of back problems! Prolonged sitting, day after day, weakens the spine and its components, as many studies have shown in people working seated (bus drivers, taxi drivers, office clerks, etc.). All of this bodes ill for a health care system already in overflow mode.

What can be done, then, to increase the level of physical activity of young people?

The solutions proposed by the experts quoted in Gabriel Béland’s article range from active transportation (walking or driving to school) to the practice of extracurricular physical activities, through the addition of time in physical education. The first two are based on the goodwill of parents and young people, not to mention that extracurricular activities very often attract a minority who are already physically active. Sword in the water? There remains the addition of time in physical education in schools and even in preschool (zero hours at present). If we rely on science – what else do we rely on? — and what she’s been saying about it for a long time is the solution and here’s why.

Physical education and health (EPS), as it is now called, reaches almost 100% of students since it is a compulsory subject in schools and CEGEPs. That’s a big plus.

But there is a bone; the time allocated to this subject is clearly insufficient to achieve the objectives set by the Ministry of Education itself!

These objectives have several targets: to teach young people, in particular, why and how to move by developing basic motor skills (throwing, catching, jumping, pivoting, swimming, etc.) and various movement strategies; teach them how to improve their cardio and adopt healthy lifestyle habits (better diet, better sleep, less stress, etc.). It is in the mandate of PE teachers – teachers with sometimes long-term university training (master’s and doctorate) – to train physically “smart” people who are responsible for their physical and mental health. There is no other academic subject that does this. Unfortunately, it is impossible to achieve these noble objectives with the short time allocated to this subject.

In elementary school, it’s barely 120 minutes a week. And again, this allotted time is suggestive and not mandatory. Result: less than 70% of primary schools in Quebec offer these 120 minutes (or more in rare cases). Almost a third of primary schools are therefore content to offer 60 minutes (or less) per week. In high school, it’s worse; barely 50 minutes per week, or even 75 minutes per nine-day cycle (37 minutes per week) in some school boards. For teenagers in full hormonal and growth peak, and more and more seated in front of any screen, it is physiologically unhealthy. It is not for nothing that several organizations dedicated to health (WHO, UNESCO, Direction de la santé publique du Québec, Health Canada, etc.) all recommend increasing the time spent in PE in schools and thereby reducing sitting time.

Scientific research has amply demonstrated that the few schools that apply this recommendation improve the academic success of young people, their physical condition (e.g.: 3 hours or more per week) and their motor skills, a guarantee of pleasure in the practice of a physical activity and a physically active life in the future.

More than 40 years ago, in what is known as the “Trois-Rivières study”2, we have made a brilliant demonstration of it. At the public elementary school Pierre-de-Coubertin, in Montreal North, young people have been enjoying one hour of PE per day since 1984, without their academic performance being affected. And the young Coubertins love their school! In fact, young people in good physical condition are better able to concentrate, to persevere on tasks requiring the intellect and to retain the knowledge transmitted in class because exercise improves working memory (short term) and long-term memory.

Adding time to PE also proves to be a winning solution to counterbalance the obesogenic environment in which more and more young people (and adults) live today. Do not look away; many young people are not physically active outside of PE lessons. They are even more and more stuck in front of some screen. The question arises and rests: until when must we demonstrate to political leaders what has been scientifically demonstrated for quite some time now?

2. Shephard, RJ & Trudeau, F. Quality Daily Physical Education for the Primary School Student: A Personal Account of the Trois-Rivières Regional Project. Quest, 2013, 65(1), 98-115.

Youth health and academic success | More physical education, please!