Identifying Effective Ways to Get Children More Physically Active

    • September 12, 2014
Top aerobic activity generators

The problem. Too many American kids are sitting around. And David R. Bassett, PhD, is trying to do something about it. Not out on the running track, though he’s been there. But from the halls of academia; specifically from the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville's Department of Kinesiology (remember this word!).

Let’s start off with something simple: around the very low levels of activity kids are getting. Research shows:

  • Only 42 percent of children age 6 to 11 meet the federal guideline of at least 60 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, or simply aerobic activity.
  • Among youth age 12 to 15, only about one-quarter fulfill the 60-minute aerobic activity standard.

So, you ask, just what are these kids doing with their time? For much of it, they are sitting in classes or in front of a screen. Children spend more than 7.5 hours a day with TV, video games, computers, and other media, according to one study.

Introducing David Bassett. The sedentary state of American youth is, of course, hardly ideal, given the well-established relationship between physical activity and good health. David Bassett, age 55, has made it his goal to improve the science and practice of active living for youth. Which brings us back to the word “kinesiology.”

“Kinesiology,” he explains, “just means study of human movement, which encompasses several fields, including exercise physiology, biomechanics, sports psychology, motor behavior, sport management, and recreation and leisure studies.”

Bassett’s career-long focus has been on exercise physiology. First at Ball State University in Indiana for his master’s degree, and then University of Wisconsin-Madison for a doctorate degree, he learned all about how the body responds to exercise. Fresh out of graduate school, he joined the UT, Knoxville Kinesiology Department faculty in 1988, becoming a full professor in 2001.

The career spark. “Initially I was interested in applying my work to athletic performance, to find ways to help athletes run faster and jump higher,” says the former collegiate competitor, about his somewhat serendipitous path to his career choice.

An undergraduate at Oberlin College in Ohio, Bassett was in a PE (physical education) class where the jogging instructor was Tommie Smith, a name that means something to serious sports buffs.

“I don’t know if you remember him, but he won the gold medal in the 200 meter in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968; he was one of two runners who gave the black power salute on the victory stand,” explains Bassett.

“He pulled me out of a PE class and said, ‘You ought to run track.’ So I began to run track and cross-country, which remained my sport throughout most of college.” Indeed, running became a big enough deal that between his junior and senior years, Bassett took a year off to train in Hawaii and compete in the Honolulu Marathon, one of the nation’s biggest. Hawaii is also where he heard a lot about David Costill, PhD, a prolific author of books and articles on human performance—and a professor at Ball State.

“There was definitely a desire to learn how the body works during exercise,” Bassett says. “That’s initially how I got into the field of exercise physiology. I wanted to know how to improve my own performance.”

And maybe another factor, he adds: “I didn’t want to follow in my parents’ footsteps.” David R. Sr. and Miyoko Bassett, were both medical doctors at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, where Bassett did most of his growing up. (His father was an associate professor; his mother had a clinical appointment, though she worked mainly in a Detroit hospital.)

An evolution. The rest is history, except, as Basset put it, “not exactly.” While athletic performance was the spark of his career, public health became its focus. “As my education progressed, I became more and more interested in the preventive medicine aspect of exercise, and in how important exercise is for improving health.” Particularly influential on his career trajectory was when, as a doctoral candidate, he was introduced to the role of exercise training in the rehabilitation of cardiac patients.

At UT today, much of his research centers on the relationship between physical activity and health outcomes. Active transportation—the formal term for bicycling and walking—is another key interest. Pedometers, accelerometers, and heart rate monitors are his tools of trade.

One of Bassett’s many studies, for example, tracked the body mass index (BMI) and physical activity level of 139 youth in an Old Order Amish farming community that shuns laborsaving technology. Unlike children in modern, industrialized societies, the Amish youngsters had high activity levels and low obesity rates, Bassett and his colleagues reported in “Physical Activity and Body Mass Index of Children in an Old Order Amish Community.” (Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Abstract online.)

Research: effective strategies. Given his passion, training, and broad expertise, it’s no surprise that the RWJF national program Active Living Research sought out Bassett to lead a project to identify effective strategies for getting children to be more active.

Bassett and UT colleagues analyzed 65 studies assessing various approaches to getting kids to be active and then converted the data from those studies into a common measure of energy expenditure. Using that measure, they estimated the minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (or aerobic activity) generated by different types of interventions.

Mandatory daily physical education turned out to be the most intensive. Bassett’s team reported that PE gave students, on average, 23 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per school day. They could gain another 19 minutes from “activity breaks” in regular classes, and 16 more minutes from walking or biking to and from school instead of being driven.

That’s a total of 58 minutes, just two short of the recommended daily dosage for children. Other policies with substantial effects included park renovations that added equipment, such as skateboarding areas and ice skating rinks (12 minutes), and afterschool activity programs (10 minutes).

The team reported its findings in American Journal of Preventive Medicine (January 2013, (abstract online) and in Research Digest published by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition (March 2013, full text online). In addition, Active Living Research disseminated study summaries, including an infographic depicting the top aerobic activity generators.

(Bassett’s colleagues for the Active Living Research project were UT researchers Eugene C. Fitzhugh, PhD; Gregory W. Heath, DHSc, MPH; Paul C. Erwin, MD, DrPH; and four graduate students: Ginny M. Frederick, MS; Dana L. Wolff, MS; Whitney A. Welch, MS, and Aaron B. Stout, MS.)

“I’m very hopeful that our study will reach policymakers,” Bassett says of the research. “If people understood that physical education is really critical and could be a huge contributor to youth physical activity levels, I think that could have a big impact.”

Meanwhile, Bassett’s own activity level does not appear in danger of decline. His main sport now is bicycling—the 50 miles-before-lunch variety. “I’m getting slower, but I’m still trying to hang on to the fast pack of riders on the Saturday ride,” he says. “They go about 18 or 19 miles an hour. It’s sometimes more than I can handle, but I try to hang in there.”

RWJF Perspective: Launched in 2000, Active Living Research was a $31 million national program that supports research to examine how physical and built environments and policies influence the amount of physical activity Americans get as part of everyday life.

Findings from the research are used to help inform policy, design of the built environment, and other factors necessary to re-engineer healthy levels of physical activity into everyday life for all Americans.

Active Living Research has sparked new awareness among policymakers and community leaders that our everyday physical activity levels depend on the presence or absence of environmental and policy supports for physical activity—including in schools,” says C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, RWJF senior scientist. “In addition,” she says, “a growing number of urban planners and transportation policymakers recognize that community design is critical for health.” (For more about the purpose, activities and results of Active Living Research, see the Program Results Report.)