And if it does, should schools, and perhaps more to the point, can schools, do something about it?
To the first question, yes, the recent reduction in obligatory muscular work really does matter, because we are designed to function as physically active animals.
There are many supportive arguments for this. Here’s one.
For millions of years we didn’t rely too much on our pancreatic supplies of insulin to control blood sugar; regular use of our large muscle groups did that for us very nicely.
Nowadays our muscles are grossly under-employed and so our reliance on insulin has increased enormously.
In time, our over-taxed pancreas is likely to give up the ghost; we call this Type 2 diabetes, a huge threat to quality of life.
While Type 2 diabetes is mainly diagnosed during adulthood, the Australian Lifestyle of Our Kids (LOOK) study www.look.org.au has reported that around 25 per cent of our children in public primary schools enter secondary school with elevated fasting blood insulin, an early sign of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Doubly concerning is that a similar incidence of increased risk is evident for cardiovascular disease, as indicated by elevated blood lipids and blood pressure.
To the second question, yes, schools should and indeed, need to get involved with physical activity, because a child’s mind and body develops optimally in an interactive manner.
We know this because hormones released during physical activity influence brain function; and hormones released via the brain influence muscle function, and the effects of this interaction, is likely to be magnified within the plasticity of a growing brain and body.
To the third question, the $64,000 question (perhaps the $6.4 billion question, considering the impact of physical inactivity on our national health bill) is whether schools can make a difference.
Well, they certainly can. In the LOOK randomised controlled trial in public primary schools, introducing just two 45 minute classes of PE each week from Grade 3 to 6 reduced the incidence of elevated insulin and blood lipids by 30 per cent!
Teachers, please don’t worry that taking time for PE might compromise academic achievement.
Those two PE classes outside the classroom not only didn’t detract from academic achievement, the PE group actually improved their NAPLAN scores 10 points more than the control group between Grades 3 and 5!
There is an expanding literature on the metabolic influence of exercise on human cognitive development, but the potency of well-taught PE on learning might also have something to do with the tactical thought, concentration and spatial awareness encouraged during games and motor skill practices, along with post-PE class quiet reflection periods.
Imagine the effect we may have achieved with daily PE.
In public primary schools, however, the specialist PE teacher usually teaches each student just once per week.
Unfortunately, classroom teachers usually lack the time, skills or confidence to conduct PE during the other four days.
It makes sense to rectify this. In Victoria, with the Department of Education and Training, the professional PE body (ACHPER), the Australian Sports Commission and Cricket Australia, we are trialling a sustainable and cost-effective new approach to do just that.
In what we’ve called the Physical Education Physical Literacy (PEPL) approach, we assign an experienced PE specialist teacher to a group of 8-10 schools as the PEPL coach.
With no fixed teaching responsibilities, the PEPL coach follows a systematic and reproducible action plan. In liaison with the principals, the school PE specialists and ACHPER, the PEPL coach provides in-class and after-school professional development (PD) for the classroom teachers, at the same time promoting a school climate of physical activity.
A key aspect of the PEPL approach is linking the PE specialist and classroom teacher, who work in tandem to satisfy the HPE curriculum; and this includes showing teachers how the ASC Sporting Schools program can contribute effectively to the curriculum.
Classroom teachers have also welcomed being shown new ways physical challenges can bring day-to-day practicality and life into classroom learning, into numeracy and other subjects.
The exciting news is that the PEPL approach, cost effective and sustainable, is being applauded by the Victorian principals and teachers involved in the trials.
The final report of the PEPL trials will be published at the end of the year, to be followed, we hope, by its implementation.