School-based programs to help children be active for life

How do we best encourage children to be physically active every day to set them up to be active and healthy for their whole lives?


About 80% of children in Australia don’t perform the daily 60 minutes of physical activity they need for good health according to National Guidelines (1). Unfortunately, the pandemic and on-again, off-again lockdowns have led to less active and more sedentary children who, according to teachers in school settings, have forgotten how to move (2). Teachers have noticed more overweight children, a lack of fitness, poor coordination and reduced physical skills in children. They have also reported a reduced tolerance to muscular and physical ‘discomfort’ seen as normal during exercise and exertion activities. Children are pulling out of activities or seeking help for perceived injuries that aren’t present. Many children who were once running around playgrounds freely during lunchtimes are now reportedly looking lost or choosing to sit.  This is concerning from a development, strength, physical health, mental wellbeing and social health perspective.

How do we best encourage children to be physically active every day to set them up to be active and healthy for their whole lives?

The challenge is to encourage children to sit less and to move more, a challenge compounded by a world dominated by digital devices, computers and social media. 

Australian children are spending more time than ever before sitting or lounging, often due to (over) using electronic media. This sitting time is in addition to time sitting in class at school, doing homework and commuting in cars to and from school (3). 

The Australian Government recommends that children aged 5 to 12 should limit screen time to no more than 2 hours a day for entertainment, play, socialising on media platforms (4).

“Teachers have noticed more overweight children, a lack of fitness, poor coordination and reduced physical skills in children. “

Children should also do at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. That includes bike riding, jogging, playing in playgrounds or outdoors, and playing sports. Activities that make them puff as well as activities that involve some strength, like climbing on playground equipment, gymnastics, skipping and jumping. These activities load the bones and benefit bone health, growth and development.

The recommended 60 minutes doesn’t have to be done all at once. Children can perform short bursts of activity for 2-10 mins at a time throughout the day to accumulate the 60 minutes. 

Less Sitting and more exercise has many health benefits for children including:

  • development of healthy bones, muscles and joints.
  • development of a healthy heart and lungs.
  • improvement in coordination, strength and muscle control.
  • achievement of a healthy body weight.
  • improvement in flexibility.
  • improvement in balance and posture.
  • development of vital connections in the brain, leading to improved skills in concentration and thinking.
  • reduced risk of developing chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness (heart and lungs).
  • better sleep.
  • increased self-esteem and self confidence.
  • improved concentration and focus in class.
  • improved ability to relax.
  • development of stronger bones and muscles.
  • improved balance and spatial awareness.
  • enhanced opportunities to make friends and improve social skills.
  • improved sense of connection with others (5).

How can we help raise healthy, active children to become active, healthy teens and adults?

School setting:

Modelling – children look up to older people in their lives. Teachers who integrate activity, movement and exercise into the classroom setting and who also participate in these activities will inspire children to ‘copy’ and participate. Teachers and school leaders who are seen to walk or ride to school, move around during break times and include exercise breaks in assemblies and classrooms will not only be great role models but will also weave movement into a normal school day (remembering that short activity bouts are just as effective!).

Peer support – children are influenced by their social systems. School leaders who provide peer encouragement and who champion the benefits of moving and exercising will have a powerful influence over their peers and younger students. A Health Champ leadership program would be a highly effective way to inspire children to be active.

Non-competitive – not everyone can be a sport super-star and not everyone wants to be. Although competition can be highly motivational, it can also lead to a high attrition rate from sport in teen years. Physical activity and exercise that is achievable but challenging, and is integrated into the school day is more likely to lead to children continuing to be active for life in an adult setting.

Fun – everyone loves to have fun. Gamifying exercise by using Spinners, multi-media tools, team or class-based activities and partner activities can all ramp up the feel-good vibes and help children enjoy exercise.

Inclusive – traditional sports are often exclusive in that the skilled get chosen for teams and the less skilled miss out. Class-based and age appropriate exercise can involve everyone in a non-biased environment. Short bouts mean there is less time for children to fatigue or experience too much discomfort that may be noticable in a team environment. This increases the enjoyment and therefore the engagement in physical activity.

Normalised – if exercise is integrated into normal settings, like assemblies, home-room class time, lunch breaks, before and after-school programs, before tests and exams, it sends the message that it’s achievable. There is no need to set aside specific, additional time to exercise. It can be done within a normal day, minimising the barriers to participation.

Home setting

Modelling – parents who are active are more likely to have children who are active. Encourage children to ride a bike alongside you as you jog or powerwalk. Show them that you can park the car a distance away from the shops or school to walk more. Small gestures send big messages and your children are watching even when you don’t realise it.

Environment – minimise TV and device time before and after dinner and encourage outdoor and active play instead. Have some equipment like balls, hoops, skipping ropes, bikes, scooters and frisbees available at home to encourage activity.

Devices – set some boundaries including how much, how often and where devices can be used.

Sleep – help children gain their 8-10 hours sleep to ensure they have the energy to feel like being active in day time hours.

Transport – walk wherever you can or park the car a distance away from your destination to encourage more walking and active forms of transport.

Feedback – acknowledge your children when thay are active and moving. Compliment them on how energetic they are (rather than how good they are at a physical skill). Recognising that your children are active sends a good message of encouragement to children who spend a lot of energy seeking your approval.

Play upbeat music – ever noticed how kids automatically start moving or dancing when music is played? Turn up the tunes before or after dinner and play some energetic music. Even have a dance with the kids or play games like musical statues.  

Health Breaks’ healthy schools program provides easy to use tools for teachers and school health champs (peer leaders) to lead short active and breather breaks for students within a normal school setting. Find out more about the Healthy Schools Active and Calm Breaks as well as our Health Champ leadership program here.

Author: Kristin McMaster, Director of Health Breaks 

Healthy Schools Program
- Active and Calm brain breaks
+ Health Champ Leadership Program

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  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2020. Insufficient physical activity . Cat. no. PHE 248. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 22 March 2021,
  2. Rahman A M, Chandrasekaran B. Estimating the Impact of the Pandemic on Children’s Physical Health: A Scoping Review. J Sch Health. 2021 Nov;91(11):936-947. doi: 10.1111/josh.13079. Epub 2021 Sep 7. PMID: 34494270.
  3. Bates LC, Zieff G, Stanford K, Moore JB, Kerr ZY, Hanson ED, Barone Gibbs B, Kline CE, Stoner L. COVID-19 Impact on Behaviors across the 24-Hour Day in Children and Adolescents: Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Sleep. Children. 2020; 7(9):138.
  4. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2020. Australia’s children. Cat. no. CWS 69. Canberra: AIHW.
  5. Health Direct, Benefits of Physical Activity for Children,