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15.10.2020 - Ausgabe: 5/2020

Physical activity from childhood to old age

By PD. Dr. Monika Siegrist, Nina Schaller (Chair of Preventive and
Rehabilitative Sports Medicine, TU Munich) / Prof. Dr. med. Martin Halle
(Preventive Sports Medicine and Sports Cardiology University Hospital
right of the Isar River, Technical University Munich)

© Jörg P. Urbach (KWA) und Hags mb Spielidee GmbH

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least 1 hour of physical activity every day. According to a study, however, more than 80 percent of all young people worldwide do not manage to do so. One reason is said to be the digital revolution. University professor Martin Halle promotes more exercise: from childhood to old age. He also calls for more support from cities and municipalities - for example by making available schoolyards until the evening and by providing more free-of- charge sports facilities and sports fields with table tennis tables, basketball courts etc. "We have far too little of that!


Many children do not move enough. Numerous studies show that many children worldwide, including in Germany, do not get enough exercise. Especially in the industrialised nations, very few children have to walk a long way to school and take the bus or train instead. Some of them are even taken to school by their parents in private taxis. This means that an important part of regular physical everyday activity drops out automatically.

At the same time, the free play in the afternoon in the fresh air is decreasing for many children, too. This is partly due to the fact that more and more children spend the whole day at school, in the day care centre or in the after-school care centre. In addition, the wide range of digital media such as television, computers, mobile phones and the internet also contributes to the fact that children spend more and more time sitting and no longer go outside, play with friends or exercise regularly. The increasing work activity of both parents also contributes to children spending less time outside, as many parents are afraid that something might happen to their children while they are still at work. Some of the children also lack attractive exercise areas that motivate them to play and do sports outdoors. This is particularly true for children in large cities, who often lack areas close to nature or freely accessible exercise and sports facilities in their living environment.


The importance of exercise for the healthy and holistic development of children

Physical activity plays a central role in the holistic development of children. From birth onwards, children conquer their environment step by step by learning how to sit, stand and walk, from the home to the nearby living environment and on to independence. Diverse experiences of physical activity enable children to get to know their bodies and the environment, to correctly assess risks and their own abilities, and to gain the ability to act and thus generate self-confidence. Through extensive material experiences, the children learn to deal with the material environment and experience physical laws first hand. Experiences of movement such as swinging, sliding or rocking allow them to gain extensive spatial experiences and thus create important prerequisites for school skills and competencies such as mathematics. 

In addition, physical activity and sports in childhood and adolescence have a broad significance for the healthy development of children. Regular physical activity contributes to the training of the cardiovascular system and muscles and to the prevention of overweight and obesity. Muscle-boosting activities and jumping exercises such as trampoline jumping, ballet or athletics also have positive effects on bone development and thus contribute to the prevention of osteoporosis later in life.


Exercise possibilities - Exercise spaces for children

Since many children spend more and more time in day-care-centres or at school, a wide range of physical activities must be anchored in the daily routine. 


Regular exercise and sports lessons

Whether in the nursery or at school - regular exercise and sports lessons can provide a variety of developmental incentives for the cognitive development and health of children. In addition to free movement and play phases, the targeted use of materials and equipment could help the children to gain comprehensive movement and material experiences and train basic motor skills in a playful way. Exercise landscapes that challenge the children's movement skills and also their imagination are particularly popular in the nursery and also at primary school age. 


Active everyday life - active breaks

Exercise offers should not be limited to the exercise room or the gym. Sitting phases should be regularly interrupted by physically active breaks during the whole day. This could be a short game with a partner or in a group, a thinking task linked to physical activity, exercises for sensory perception or a movement song. Physically active breaks could also be achieved with small equipment such as juggling cloths or small throwing bags, and with household objects such as simple paper or paper plates.


Physical activity in the schoolyard

Most children like to be out in the fresh air - especially when they are motivated by diverse impulses to become physically active. The ideal solution here would be diverse open areas where children could both play catch and ball games, including green zones where they can have a rest or build a camp as well as play areas equipped with slides, swings or balancing facilities. These exercise offerings for the children should be available during both break times, after strenuous periods of concentration and also in the afternoons.


The whole day as an opportunity and danger for the physical activity of children

All-day activities generally provide the children with a great opportunity to exercise and do sports. In the nursery and at school, children can play and do sports together with their peers and thus gain a variety of social experiences and develop various soft skills. 

In most schools, attractive exercise rooms and equipment are already available for this specific purpose. However, it is still the case that physical education classes are often cancelled and the gymnasium may only be used during sports lessons. Still, not all schools are able to offer an attractive range of exercise and sports activities for children as an integrated component of all-day care. There is often a lack of space, teachers and supervisors. As a result, the children have only limited opportunities to exercise in the afternoon. In addition, most of the physical activities are only implemented in the class association thus preventing the children from trying out different types of sports in small groups which could help to promote lifelong physical activity. The quality of the physical activity offers is particularly important in all-day care, as many children who stay the whole day in day care centres do not take advantage of additional sports offers in clubs and may thus only implement a reduced level of physical activity. 


Additional programmes on the way to a healthy school

Numerous health promotion programmes support the schools in their further development towards a healthy school. One example of this is JuvenTUM, a programme implemented at the Technical University of Munich with the support of the Bavarian State Ministry of Health and Nursing at primary, middle and secondary schools. The programme focuses on the children themselves, who are trained as health experts to learn about the importance of exercise, a balanced diet and activities to strengthen their well-being. In a child-friendly way, the children experience a variety of ways in which they can become active themselves to promote their health condition. At the same time, regular project meetings with teachers are held to implement preventive measures in schools, e.g. optimising the break-time sales, redesigning playgrounds in a more movement-friendly way or purchasing new play equipment for active breaks in class. Parents are also involved in this project. They regularly receive impulses and suggestions for an active and healthy everyday family life and can try out a variety of exercise and play activities themselves in parents' evenings or implement recipe ideas during joint cooking events. Networking of schools and children with clubs and associations as well as an overview of the wide range of exercise opportunities in the children's living environment are also important components of the project.


Exercise in your leisure time/with your family

Apart from watching films or going shopping together with their parents, an eventful childhood also includes active trips on foot or by bike, or playing table tennis or badminton together in the evening or on weekends, or going to a playground. Both children and their parents benefit in a sustainable way from joint activities in the fresh air or from joining a sports club. In addition, the children and parents have fun together - an important balance to school life for the children and to the professional challenges for the parents. Many children who can gain positive experiences of physical activity in childhood remain active throughout their whole lives.


Sports for the elderly: muscle building for advanced learners

However, a large proportion of middle-aged adults do not get enough exercise, as their work and family life do not allow them to exercise regularly. This situation changes to some extent for some of them when they reach retirement age. Maintaining good health becomes more and more important and at the same time there is usually more time to take advantage of exercise and sports activities. When older people move into a senior citizens' facility, they are significantly less physical active, as they only have a small flat to look after, no gardening to do and because they are generally supported in most everyday activities. To keep them healthy, senior citizens are usually offered to participate in gymnastics or fall prevention trainings in almost all senior citizens' facilities. However, the intensity of these programmes offered is often not enough to maintain muscle mass and prevent osteoporosis. 

For this reason, a new sports concept has been developed which, through multimodal strength, coordination and endurance training, should help to maintain the musculature and reduce the risk of falling. This supports important components of healthy ageing, i.e. mobility and independence as well as the well-being of senior citizens. Training programmes for older people and the very elderly often fail as they no longer want to go to a fitness studio and/or are unable to make the journey to a sports club or other sports facilities. "Our intention is to bring physical activity to where older people live, to the senior citizen facilities," explains the medical director of sports medicine at the Technical University of Munich, Univ. Prof. Martin Halle, who conducted a new study with the support of the Beisheim Foundation and together with his team of sports and nutritional scientists. 77 seniors between 75 and 104 years of age took part in the pilot study and trained for 45 to 60 minutes twice a week for six months. The seniors were enthusiastic about the new sports programme and were able to experience noticeable effects in everyday life, for example when climbing stairs. "From a medical point of view, a sports room would be absolutely necessary in any old people's or nursing home, also as an active meeting place", explains Prof. Halle. For this reason, a follow-up study is already in progress in 20 senior citizens' facilities, which will scientifically investigate the effects of the training programme on musculature, risk of falling, cardiovascular system, cognition and well-being. But this is only the beginning. Behind best form. Sports knows no age, there is an overall exercise concept for senior citizens' facilities or for senior citizens, which, in addition to the multi-modal training room in senior citizens' facilities, also focuses on the further development of exercise offers for senior citizens outdoors and, in the long term, would also like to make everyday life in senior citizens' facilities more active through movement impulses. 


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