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Researcher: Smartphones and sedentary lifestyles impacting schoolkids' health

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Children's time spent in front of a screen should be limited to two hours per day, experts say. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Many schoolchildren are showing a decline in both physical endurance and limberness, according to a nationwide study tracking children's physical capabilities.

Since 2016, educational authorities have maintained a national physical functional capacity monitoring and feedback system for 5th and 8th grade pupils known as "Move!"

2019 test results from the programme indicate that our society's increasingly sedentary lifestyle is also being reflected in the physical fitness of our children.

For example, this year's testing found that about a quarter of 8th grade boys cannot fully straighten their backs when sitting on the floor with legs extended. All but six percent of girls in the same age group were unable to assume that position.

According to Arja Sääkslahti, a researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, the reason for that is partly biological and partly because girls tend to gravitate more towards sports that improve flexibility and muscle tone.

"Even so, this is still worrying. In principle, there should really be no difference between the sexes for this benchmark," says Sääkslahti.

Poor endurance leads to fatigue

Arja Sääkslahti points out that the impact of lifestyle is even more evident in upper body flexibility. One-third of 5th grade boys have difficulty with their left arms in making a test movement in which one arm is rotated upwards, the other downwards with the target of touching fingertips behind their backs. Among girls, 17 percent also find it difficult.

According to Sääkslahti, poor flexibility in the left shoulder reflects the habit of holding arms in a static position, particularly while using smartphones. The lack of flexibility in the lower back is the result of sitting for extended periods.

"We spend a long time not moving, with various electronic devices, in static positions, head hanging down. Annually it adds up to a lot of hours like that. It is inevitable that it shows up in poor flexibility," notes Sääkslahti.

Another development that worries Sääkslahti is the decline in endurance among 5th graders.

"If the numbers of children with low levels of endurance just grows and grows, it will mean that they will tire very quickly when engaged in their daily activities."

Arja Sääkslahti adds that we all, children and adults, should be more careful about allowing electronic devices to get such a hold on us that we forget the importance of exercise.

Positive development, as well

This was the fourth year of Move! programme monitoring. The 8th graders included this year were also tested when in 5th grade. The good news is that as a group their overall physical functional capacity has shown positive development.

"This says to me that the monitoring and feedback has led to more awareness. It's come to be understood that these things affect the children's wellbeing and ability to cope, and that these can be maintained and developed. It has made it possible for physical education to be more clearly goal-oriented," says Jyväskylä University researcher Arja Sääkslahti.

Supervised exercise during the school day are proven to be of special benefit to children with poor physical functional capacity. For example, the city of Jyväskylä added varied supervised exercise to its regular school day, resulting in children gaining more endurance, as well as more back and hip flexibility.

The Move! programme gathers data on endurance, strength, speed, flexibility, balance and basic motor skills. The intention is to motivate and support children to look after their physical wellbeing.

Results are also used in developing teaching tools and in school healthcare services.

Recommendations for physical activity for school age children, according to the Finnish National Agency for Education:

- All 7–18 year-old children should get a minimum of 1-2 hours of various kinds of age appropriate exercise every day.

- Sitting for more than two hours in a row should be avoided.

- Time spent in front of a screen should be limited to a maximum of two hours per day.

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