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18.02.2019 - Ausgabe: 1/2019

The "School Fitness" initiative as a contribution to promoting health and physical activity at schools

Uta Lindemann (University of Bielefeld)


Health promotion at school

Health prevention and promotion play an increasingly important role also in the context of education. The main reason for this growing importance refers to the fact that decisive markers towards health equity are also being laid down in the school context, as had previously been the case in the day care centres.

According to pedagogues and scientists, extensive health promotion should be strengthened right from the early school age on. Health-related attitudes and patterns of behaviour formed at an early age, often continue to have their effect from childhood into adulthood. Hence great importance is attached to the promotion of a healthy life-style as early as in childhood and adolescence. In addition to the family, it is the school which offers the relevant living environment where health promotion as part of personal development can be supported and take place. Because against the background of an increasing complexity due to the advancing virtualisation 
- according to current findings which show that youngsters and young adults aged between twelve and 25 years are online an average 22 hours per week exclusively to communicate, play virtual games or for entertainment (see also BZgA 2017 /*German Federal Centre for Health Education) - adolescence and the subsequent management of development tasks become increasingly complicated. Finally, it is the school which, due to its closeness to all school-age children and young people, offers an additional advantage regarding the framework conditions for intervention.

Physical activity as an indicator of health has for long been part of the everyday school routine of many schools, especially of many primary schools, as the connection between physical activity behaviour and health has been intensely researched. Regular physical activity has proven to have health benefits and is regarded as integral part of a healthy life style. The scientific data related to the connection between physical activity and health are multiplex, conclusive and attain a high level of evidence (see LIGA NRW, 2011 /All-day School Programme, North Rhine-Westphalia).


Learning needs physical activity

Physical activity and physical experience are, however, also of utmost importance for learning and the development of children and youngsters. The findings of developmental psychology, neurosciences, school and teaching research have proved the high importance of physical activity and sensory perception in promoting knowledge development as well as that of skills and attitudes. Both the efficiency of learning and the prerequisites for learning can be improved by physical activity. Thus, good schools take into account their pupil's needs for physical activity and believe in exercising to use the body as an additional sensory channel. The structure of the brain is modified through learning processes and thus adapts to the modified requirements. Therefore, physical activity promotes learning in different ways and its effect on schools has been shown by several studies, such as SingH 2012, Trudeau/Shepard 2010, Booth et al.2014 (see Brägger et al 2017).

In which way could health promotion then be implemented at schools by taking into account all parties involved, i.e. students, teaching staff, parents, the non-teaching school staff and the environment? This new approach could include, for instance, new teaching methods which take up health-promoting elements, such as the classroom breakfast or active breaks. In addition, health as such should be integrated into the school programme as an important issue. And the external design of the learning environment, such as the schoolyard and classrooms should be adapted to health-promoting conditions. Last but not least, the final essential aspect is the expansion of health promotion beyond school hours and school as such (see Altgeld & Kolip, 2004).

AOK-Rhineland/Hamburg, a German statutory health insurance scheme, has taken up this approach with their project called "Fitness at School".


The "Fitness at School" initiative of AOK-Rhineland/Hamburg

Since the school year 2009/2010, the AOK project "Fitness at School" has been offered to all of the approximately 1600 secondary schools in North Rhine-Westphalia. For this purpose, AOK has provided an amount of 2,250,000 euros.

The initiative "Fitness at School" promotes customised, attractive and motivating solutions for both "couch potatoes" and athletically ambitious children and youngsters. The objective is, to reach as many students, regardless of sex, ethnicity and social environment to

  • improve their health status and fitness level,
  • to guarantee the provision of a wide range of sports offerings through the cooperation between schools and sports clubs,
  • to encourage and enable students to do sports lifelong by promoting the attitude that sports and physical activity are fun and pleasure,
  • to improve the education and future opportunities of children by keeping them close to their sports clubs, especially those children who would otherwise have no access.

The special feature of this initiative is that it is the schools themselves which have to develop their concept ideas for the most appropriate fitness and sports promotion, i.e. by specifically designed concepts which they develop themselves taking into account the needs of their students and the existing equipment and, thus, meeting the

particular requirements of their students. After the online application procedure which is accompanied by support over the telephone and in writing, an expert committee consisting of representatives of AOK, scientists and representatives of MSB NRW, the NRW Ministry of Education, determines which proposals are to be funded after reviewing all eligible and preselected applications.


Key results

Between the years 2009 and 2018, 921 applications were submitted, 814 project proposals of which have been funded. Over the entire period concerned, most applications were submitted by integrated comprehensive schools, followed by grammar schools and special schools for children with learning difficulties. All this shows that the specific demand affects all types of schools whereas the project ideas are as diverse as the schools themselves.

funded between 2009 and 2018, differentiated according to type of school and years

Joining the initiative and benefitting from its financing is in many cases regarded as initial impulse to change the existing school's profile by promoting the idea of becoming a "healthy school".

What they all have in common is that there is a specific need for action and that they address this problem by integrating more sports and physical activity, in the course of which the following topics have emerged:

  • getting to know new types of sports / making access to sports club membership easier
  • integrating more physical activity into regular school work
  • Social learning: conflict management, prevention of violence, martial arts, self-assertion, self-confidence.
  • Training/Formation for sports assistants

It is clearly visible that the biggest concern of all applicants is to allow all students to join a local sports club.  The second most significant project focuses are on different measures which aim at integrating more physical activity into the daily school work. In the meantime the formation of professional sports assistants has become a separate and popular thematic focus, as well as the offerings on the subject of "social learning". An evaluation about the entire period of the initiative will be conducted and should provide information about the different reasons for submitting defined thematic funding proposals.



In the following, examples will describe the different approaches to increase the physical activity in everyday school routine, by introducing measures such as the "active lunch break" or working groups on several school topics including physical activity, which all have a great effect.

As among pupils from 7th grade onwards fitness is a subject of particularly high importance, the schools themselves try to establish individual spaces for movement as many schoolyards of secondary schools are not yet as well-equipped as for instance those of primary schools. Especially those youngsters who have not yet found their personal access to a particular sport are to be won over by trend sports such as Street Workout, Calisthenics and the Le Parkour philosophy. The great advantage of these sports is that in most cases they can be practised by using simple tools or even without any equipment. The aim here is to make the best of the means available. Once the youngsters are " infected" by the simple way to access their favourite sports, it often happens that they even come back to the schoolyard outside school hours, which at the same time strengthens their identification with the school. Participating in initiatives such as "Fitness at School", which are forbidden to fund any materials, often prove to be a door opener. Schools often sharpen their profile towards more "health" or "the "fun of movement" which, in turn, might convince potential partners, especially if the start-up funding as well as a good and clear concept ideas are already existing. Thus, seven schools have meanwhile been able to install Calisthenics centres in their schoolyards supported by sponsors.

Finally, the approach of creating opportunities which enable children to be physically active even outside school hours and classrooms gains more and more supporters. Especially projects which are focused on cycling are of special interest. More and more pupils are coming to school by bike and are in some cases involved in the regional planning of cycle tracks (as it was recently the case in the Eifel). However, there are also other projects which, for instance, are focused on the subject "adventure" in the context of which additional spaces for physical activity are developed which consider the aspect of adventure-based learning. However, this requires that both the school and local environment make areas available for this type of meaningful use of leisure time.

If learning is regarded as a holistic process in which the body is involved in a stronger way through physical activity and body awareness, schools must become living space which considers fitness as an important feature of experiential enrichment. By doing so, the school as such must be considered as a space for movement, as it is the case with the "fitness at school" - schools.



List of references:

Altgeld, T. & Kolip, P. (2004). Konzepte und Strategien der Gesundheitsförderung. In K. Hurrelmann, T. Klotz & J. Haisch (Hg.), Lehrbuch Prävention und Gesundheitsförderung (S. 41–51). Bern, 2004.)

Brägger, G. Hundeloh, H. Posse, N. & Städtler, H. (2017). Bewegung und Lernen: Konzept und Praxis Bewegter Schulen. Beltz-Verlag Nordhausen.

Landesinstitut für Gesundheit und Arbeit des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen (LIGA.NRW). (2011). Gesundheit durch Bewegung fördern. Empfehlungen für Wissenschaft und Praxis. LIGA. Fokus 12. LIGA NRW Düsseldorf.

Lindemann,(2011). Jubiläumsschrift „10 Jahre Fit durch die Schule - Ergebnisse der wissenschaftlichen Begleitung. AOK-Rheinland/Hamburg.

Orth, B. (2017). Die Drogenaffinität Jugendlicher in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 2015 Teilband Computerspiele und Internet. BZgA-Forschungsbericht. Köln.

Image: HAGS




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