Research carried out on Maltese schoolchildren to assess if increasing moderate-to-vigorous physical activity can reduce obesity has shown encouraging results, says Stephanie Fsadni

Increasing moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) reduces the prevalence of obesity, local research on schoolchildren suggests.

According to a recent National Childhood Body Mass Index Study, 40 per cent of primary schoolchildren and 43 per cent of secondary schoolchildren are overweight or obese.

Aiming to tackle this problem, the study – launched by the Clinical Biomechanics Research Group at the University of Malta in 2017 – increased the amount of MVPA at school during curricular physical education (PE) lessons via a structured physical activity programme. MVPA is the intensity of exercise that makes one slightly breathless and sweating a little.

Amanda Fenech, a paediatric trainee at Mater Dei Hospital, conducted the study, in which 120 students, aged nine to 10, were recruited from three schools in St Benedict’s College.

A research-based PE curriculum called SPARK – Sports and Active Recreation for Kids – was delivered by the PE teachers in two schools for the scholastic year 2016/2017.

The third school served as a control group, in which the standard national PE curriculum was delivered.

The programme has already been tried and tested in a number of countries, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Norway, Portugal and Singapore.

At the end of the local programme, Dr Fenech measured the effects of this intervention on biomechanical fitness, obesity measures, general physical activity levels and academic achievement.

Percentages of overweight and obese children decreased

After the application of the structured PE curriculum over a whole year, the percentages of overweight and obese children decreased by nine per cent and 10 per cent in the intervention groups, while the prevalence of excess weight and obesity in the control school only decreased minimally, by three per cent (see the graph below).

The findings of a questionnaire which measured overall weekly physical activity found that the structured PE curriculum also brought about an increase in physical activity outside the PE lessons. This study also introduced an innovative concept of biomechanical performance testing on schoolchildren as a means of objective fitness assessment and tracking physical progress.

Students in the intervention group showed a significant improvement in their jump height at the end of the year, which was measured through the use of a force platform and biomechanical analysis.

With regards to students’ academic performance, annual results marks decreased overall, but the author says that the decrease was not significant and that “it was probably due to an increase in the difficulty of the subjects”. Still, Dr Fenech says that the long-term benefits of physical activity should be taken into account, such as a reduced risk of depression and anxiety and an increase in self-esteem.

These effects could lead to a positive relationship with academic performance: increased blood flow to the brain helps information to be retained and enables the individual to understand, remember and retrieve information at a quicker rate.

“The encouraging results recommend the provision of a structured PE curriculum to schoolchildren as a public health strategy against children obesity,” Dr Fenech said.

The research was conducted as a part of Dr Fenech’s post-graduate research in clinical biomechanics and was supervised by Alfred Gatt, who leads the Clinical Biomechanics research department at the University of Malta, Cynthia Formosa, the head of podiatry at the University of Malta and Nachiappan Chockalingam, an affiliate professor at the University of Malta and professor of clinical biomechanics at Staffordshire University in the UK.