As screen time becomes the norm, “play” is shifting from outdoor games and sports to sedentary simulations. Despite the large jump in childhood obesity since 2016, particularly in children ages 2 to 5,1 recess has been reduced in 40% of U.S. school districts.2
Kathleen Tullie, the founder and executive director of Build Our Kids’ Success (BOKS) and senior director of social responsibility of Reebok International, spoke with us about the work she is doing to help children be more active and combat the obesity and mental health epidemic that is plaguing our nation’s youth. Tullie also shared the steps parents, communities and schools can take to get kids more active and, ultimately, bring back play.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 60 minutes of physical activity a day for children. However, due to budget cuts, many schools are eliminating physical education programs. What impact can a lack of physical activity have on a child’s development?
Play and physical activity are fundamental to a child’s well-being – it’s in children’s DNA – and society has taken it out of their lives. We were designed to move, not sit for six to eight hours a day. In fact, physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality. It’s linked to all the noncommunicable diseases. Physical inactivity is the new smoking, and it’s creating a big issue in not just this country, but worldwide.
The minute you stand up, you begin releasing norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin and increasing blood flow, which allows you to be more alert. Ten years ago, Dr. Charles Hillman, director of the Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory at Illinois, conducted a study where he put neurotransmitters on two groups of children. One group was walking, and the other was doing a puzzle. He had them take a test, and the scan showed that the children who were walking performed much better.
Dr. John Ratey, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has deemed exercise as “Miracle Grow” for the brain. Further evidence is laid out in his book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” which proves the profound effect that exercise has on the mind. Exercising for between 15 minutes and 20 minutes at 60% to 80% of your maximum heart rate has the same effect as taking Prozac or Ritalin. Meanwhile, we see parents increasingly putting their children on prescription drugs, but the natural drug is out there – let children run around before or during school, and we won’t see this huge increase in children taking prescription drugs. There are cases where children who have ADHD or ADD need to be medicated, but I think we should see if movement could be the prescription that could help.
A lack of physical activity is not only linked to childhood obesity, but mental health issues as well. Teen suicide is up 70% over the past decade. As modern society evolves, children are exposed to more technology and begin to follow what I refer to as “a curated reality.” It’s not an actual reality, but a fear of missing out or upset that their life doesn’t look as good as a curated reality.
Talk about the BOKS program and what you hope children gain from it.
BOKS is a free physical activity program that has grown from one 12-week curriculum focused on functional movements to several different curricula ranging from other fitness-related concepts to mindfulness. A typical curriculum is 12 weeks, consisting of 40- to 45-minute lesson plans three times a week. Not only is the program designed so that anyone (you don’t need a degree or certification in fitness) can bring it to their school, community center or home, but the BOKS team has made sure the lesson plans include a focus on fun.
We know that kids form healthy habits early on, and we do not want them to look at physical activity as a chore, but rather as an enjoyable way to engage with friends and feel good. While each lesson plan emphasizes a particular skill (for example, squats or push-ups), we are intentional about using fun games and relays to practice that skill. We also supply trainers with quick nutrition and mindfulness tips to help target other areas of a child’s well-being.
Between 2018 and 2019, our first BOKS students will have graduated from high school. They are not only overcoming fitness challenges to become stronger physically and mentally, but they are also helping others on their own fitness journeys.
What research have you conducted to support the effectiveness of the BOKS program?
We’ve conducted two different sets of research. We partnered with the National Institute on Out-Of-School Time (NIOST) at Wellesley College. NIOST found that BOKS significantly affected children’s working memory and concluded that participation in the program can contribute to wellness and school success. Recently, we also finished a research study with Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. The results, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, demonstrate that children who participated in BOKS three days a week showed a decrease in BMI and reported feeling deeper social connections to their friends and school and a greater happiness and satisfaction with life.
If you’re a parent and can give your child a magic pill that makes him or her happier, less anxious and less depressed, you would do it every morning. If that’s the case, why aren’t we encouraging our children to run around every morning? We know that it increases cognitive function, confidence and happiness while decreasing depression and anxiety.