Physical Activity in Schools, Part 1

Girls hiking

Physical education, recess with opportunities for activity — does any of it help? Does all this motion do any good at all? Does letting or making children play outside, or inside, make a difference to childhood obesity? Many authorities say yes, according to reports from around the globe.

In the United Kingdom, an anti-obesity campaign urges parents to take their small children out of perambulators and set them on their feet. For kids who are not walking yet, the recommendations are for “baby gym” activity mats and swimming.

Fiona Macrae quotes Professor Dame Sally Davies, who is the chief medical officer for England:

There is considerable international evidence that letting children crawl, play or roll around on the floor is essential during early years. This matters to your child now, to their development through childhood and adolescence and to their disease profile in middle-age and later life.

Davies says that once a child has learned to walk, she or he should be physically active for at least three hours a day, for both physical and mental health.

Another British institution, Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, conducted a meta-study, analyzing data from “11 randomized and non-randomized control trials,” says ScienceDaily. The researchers were trying to get some idea of whether outdoor exercise has a better effect on general well-being than indoor exercise. With these studies-of-studies, it’s hard to get exact answers, because all the research was conducted under different parameters. Of course, the studies chosen by the team had to have tracked “at least one physical or mental well-being outcome in adults or children.”

Apparently, they found enough to be persuaded that exercising out in the natural environment does have advantages:

The study found that most trials showed an improvement in mental well-being: compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression.

Amber Woods recalls a childhood when her mother’s voice could often be heard saying, “You kids go outside and play.” It was a childhood of non-electronic amusement and recreation, and Woods still believe that is the best kind of childhood. She writes:

Skateboarding may be dubbed a nuisance by some, but heck, at least it gets the kids out of the house… As long as it isn’t illegal, unsound or very dangerous, who cares what activity they’re taking part in when they’re outside having fun?

For, Woods reviewed a book titled Last Child in the Woods. The author, Richard Louv, sees childhood obesity as a symptom. Children’s lack of social skills and their ever-shortening attention spans are other symptoms. They are symptoms of what Louv calls Nature-Deficit Disorder, and he sets out research proving his theory:

Being outdoors and within nature creates emotional well being, healthy risk taking, observation skills, lowered depression, cognitive abilities, and creativity within children.

To learn more about the childhood obesity angle, we went to one of Louv’s online columns at his own website and learned that, among other enthusiastic fans, he has Clint Eastwood on his side. The previous year, the film star/activist had sponsored a conference where developers considered the issue of building and designing communities that connect children to nature.

But why? Among other things, Louv cites research showing that outdoor joggers get extra benefits from the green surroundings and views of landscape, feeling “more restored, and less anxious, angry, and depressed than people who burn the same amount of calories in gyms or other built settings.”

He discusses the powerful deterrents to natural play, of which fear of litigation is a major factor. He wants to see a nationwide review of public and private laws that restrict play, and a national communication between insurance companies, lawyers, urban planners and, of course, parents. The world contains plenty of risk, Louv says, but we also have to consider the huge risks attendant on raising a generation of kids under “protective house arrest.”

Louv believes that the children-and-nature movement and the anti-child-obesity movement are compatible allies. He also points out a coincidence that leaves us with something to chew on:

It’s important to acknowledge that the greatest increase in child obesity in our history occurred during the same decades as the greatest increase in organized sports for children.


Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “’Toddlers need a 3-hour daily workout,’”, 07/26/11
Source: “Benefits of Outdoor Exercise Confirmed,” ScienceDaily, 02/05/11
Source: “In Support Of Kick-The-Can And Other Outdoor Play,” (Havre de Grace, MD), 06/26/11
Source: “On Child Obesity,”, 08/01/08
Image by Paul Schultz, used under its Creative Commons license.

2 Responses

  1. Outdoor activity is a good way for children to exercise, lose weight, and feel better about themselves. My question is how do you get the children to want to participate in these activities especially when there is a lack of quality playgrounds in less desired areas of the United States. If children are to go out to play then we as a society should ensure that there are things for them to play on that aren’t broken, and appropriate for all ages. I saw a park in DC that has a toddler area, basketball court, larger playground for older children, and benches for the parents to sit and watch their children as well as a dog walk area. I think more communities should invest in parks like these it will generate more children to want to get out and play.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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