First-graders fitter than expected

November 17, 2017

Childhood obesity is often attributed to a lack of exercise. So what about sports among elementary school students? A team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) pursued this question and collected the results of fitness tests for first-year students over a period of one decade. Their study shows that students did not lose their strength. Speed or balance even increased over the time of ten years. One change was in the boys, whose endurance decreased compared to the girls of the same age.

„Contrary to the mostly negative tone of previous studies, we were able to demonstrate that the motor performance of first-year students has not deteriorated overall over the past ten years," explained Filip Mess, Professor for Didactics in Sport and Health at TUM. Previous studies should therefore be called into question.

Mess and his colleague Dr. Sarah Spengler analyzed a data set of fitness tests with a total of 5,001 first graders. Between 2006 and 2015, approximately 500 first-year students were tested every year in the Baden-Baden area. All of the region's 18 primary schools took part in the project, which was funded by the Baden-Badener Sportstiftung Kurt Henn.

In addition to endurance (6-minute run), their strength (push-ups), speed (20-meter sprint), and balance (balance exercise) were examined. „These four tests only showed a measurable decline in the endurance performance of boys. For girls, on the other hand, it remained constant. Overall speed and balance even improved for both sexes," Spengler summed up.

Special Feature of the Study Design: Data Was Collected Annually

Compared to previous research projects, the study design has a special quality: „The studies were carried out in each of the ten years, whereas previous projects mostly only used two measuring points, with an interval of ten years for example. The problem is that this type of research design is prone to bias," said Mess. For example, a less athletically inclined class may be examined in a given year and a more athletic class in the next -- the result would therefore be wrongly generalized.

The second special feature is the fact that all of the 18 primary schools in the region took part in the study. This eliminates bias caused by a too large share of urban or rural participants. "The data is representative for the Baden-Baden region," said Mess.

However, the regional selection bias also implies a restriction of the results' applicability. „The study is certainly more significant in terms of long-term conclusions than previous research. However, the data cannot simply be applied to the whole of Germany. The more prosperous and rural region of Baden-Baden may differ from other regions in Germany," said the Professor for Didactic Methods in Sport and Health.

For Professor Mess the results should therefore provide an impetus to use similar research designs for future assessments of long-term developments in children's motor performance. In Hessen, for example, sport-motor examinations are to be introduced for every elementary school student.

Spengler emphasized: „We were able to show that in the four tests only the boys deteriorated significantly with regard to aerobic fitness. Nevertheless, this shouldn't be seen as a reason to pat ourselves on the back. The data doesn't say that the children's performance is actually good. It just hasn't gotten any worse." Especially with regard to exercise, there are still great challenges ahead, said Spengler. To help children become healthy adults.
Publication: Spengler, S., Rabel, M., Kuritz, AM. and Mess F. Trends in Motor Performance of First Graders: A Comparison of Cohorts from 2006 to 2015, Frontiers in Pediatrics 2017 Sep 29;5:206. doi: 10.3389/fped.2017.00206.

Contact: Prof. Dr. Filip Mess
Technical University of Munich
Chair for Didactics in Sport and Health
Phone: +49 (89) 289 - 24520

Technical University of Munich (TUM)

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