A scientific look at ‘wild, childish fun’

Proof that regular fun-focused physical activity can benefit young people across the board.

Back in 2010 Les Mills first made the move to mix scientific exercise expertise with wild childish fun. The goal was to help future generations fall in love with physical activity. At the same time a group of researchers in Illinois began exploring the same idea.

Now, four years down the track, hundreds of kids are doing Les Mills’ BORN TO MOVE™ classes each week, and that group of researchers has wrapped up one of the most comprehensive studies into physical activity and academic performance ever.

This research, from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, goes beyond simply comparing children’s fitness levels and academic test scores. It looks at the long term integration of fun-focussed physical activity and how it influences overall cognitive function (not purely academic success).

The study involved 220 eight and nine year olds who were randomly divided into two groups. One group participated in an after-school program of physical activity five days a week for nine months. The other group did not.

What the kids in the after-school program took part in was not specific sports training or exercise. Instead, the focus was on cultivating ‘wild, childish fun’ and each session featured structured bouts of organised games interspersed with periods of downtime. “We wanted them to play,” says Charles Hillman, a professor kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois.

During this daily dose of play children generally moved at moderate to vigorous intensity for about 70 minutes. The games were designed to keep their hearts beating at 55 to 80 per cent of their maximum heart rate and the children’s activity levels were monitored by heart rate watches that they wore during the classes.

Dr Jackie Mills, Les Mills Chief Creative Officer, applauds this approach and stresses the fact that traditional sports and exercise isn’t the only way to raise heart rates. “Any activity that increases their heart rate to a moderate or vigorous level is good. The secret is to ensure that children are having fun as that’s what keeps them coming back.”

This study has obviously had the fun aspect sorted. It was noted that despite the after-school classes not being compulsory very few ever skipped them.

At the end of the nine months it was no surprise that those children who had been participating in the after-school program had become more physically fit than they were before. They had also lost body fat, although changes in weight and body composition were not the main focus. The most significant findings were cognitive improvements in the area of executive functioning. Children doing the after-school program had improved ‘attentional inhibition’. This means that they became better at blocking out irrelevant information and concentrating on the task at hand, than they were at the beginning of the study.

Those in the control group (those who didn’t do the after-school activity) also raised their test scores, but much lest significantly. Dr Mills says this indicates what you might expect, “The brains of all the children were developing, but the development was more rapid and expansive for those who engaged in regular physical play.”

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