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How to Improve Fitness Programs at Schools

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Only a third of kids in the U.S. are physically active on a daily basis. Kids are spending an average of seven hours a day in front of computers, tablets, and phones. And with technology becoming more common in everyday life, this number could increase. The problem is that children between the ages of 6 and 17 actually need at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day to stay healthy and prevent childhood obesity.

Although parents can — and should — play a significant role in encouraging physical activity and limits on screen time, schools are uniquely positioned to help students engage in daily physical activity, as well. Sure, PE classes have been around forever, but the importance of such programs has been lost in the shuffle to maximize time for academic instruction and achievement. And many school districts only have PE classes a couple of times a week.

But there’s more to physical fitness among students than just offering PE classes on a sporadic schedule. Educators can incorporate physical activity and fitness into other facets of their school day, ultimately teaching students that physical activity and a healthy lifestyle can be fun.

Why Is Physical Fitness Important?

When you think about “physical fitness,” you probably think about strong muscles and maintaining a healthy weight. But physical fitness is about more than just looking your best — it’s about feeling your best, too. It’s also about reducing physical inactivity to prevent obesity and improve overall health.

In today’s digital world full of screens and electronics, there’s too much competition for attention, and physical activity often takes a backseat to video games, social media, and television. This sedentary lifestyle is dangerous for adults and children alike because it puts them at higher risk for obesity and a number of related health complications, like diabetes. But besides just keeping students at a healthy weight, being physically fit has a number of physical and mental health benefits, including:

1. Reduced Risk of Illness

It’s not just an apple a day that keeps the doctor away! It’s all-around healthy living. Staying active can help combat an array of health issues, like stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and arthritis. A strong body is also more capable of defending itself against the cold, flu, and many other viruses.

2. Improved Mood and Emotional Health

Have you ever noticed that you feel happier after you’ve gone for a walk or done something active? That’s because exercise is a natural mood booster. Over time, regular physical activity has been found to relieve anger, anxiety, and depression. If those activities are outside — running, biking, hiking, or even just walking around the neighborhood — there may even be more mood-boosting benefits since sunlight and fresh air have also been found to help improve mental health.

3. Increased Stamina

Maintaining good physical health can offer an energy boost for the rest of the day. Even after exercise, this benefit sticks around and helps maintain stamina during tasks like walking up stairs or carrying heavy books. As we age, maintaining a healthy level of activity can prevent us from experiencing as much fatigue or loss of strength and ability to perform daily activities, too.

4. Longevity

On average, people who maintain their physical fitness can live longer than people who don’t. And those extra years are also healthier years because staying active helps prevent or delay chronic health conditions or illnesses.

Benefits of Physical Activity at School

Although most parents understand the importance of physical activity for overall health and well-being, sometimes it’s difficult to explain why it’s essential to incorporate physical activity into schools. After all, there’s already not enough time in the day to cover math, science, reading, and history. But it’s critical for schools to create opportunities for physical activity because it benefits students physically, mentally, and academically. 

The benefits of regular physical activity in students are undeniable and can help improve:


Regular school attendance is essential for students to stay on track and receive the best education they possibly can. Students who regularly miss school due to illness or poor mental health can fall behind and struggle to catch up once they return. Because physical activity can help prevent illness and improve mental health, it can boost a student’s overall health and reduce their chances of missing school.

Memory and Comprehension

Students who engage in physical activity during the day show better cognitive abilities. Active students can better understand the concepts being presented and are better able to memorize key information. Some of this is because they don’t miss as much class time due to illness, but it’s also because their brains are better equipped to pay attention and process important information.

Behavior in the Classroom

The brain benefits of physical activity extend beyond memorization. Regular activity has also been shown to reduce behavior problems in the classroom, which helps create a more relaxed, learning-centric atmosphere.

This can be especially useful for students with ADHD since physical activity has been shown to help them gain confidence and improve their executive function, which includes their ability to think clearly and exhibit self-control. Even for students who don’t have ADHD, incorporating physical activity into their school day can help them expend energy so they can sit and focus on what they’re learning in the classroom.

Academic Achievement

When students have regular school attendance, reduced behavioral issues, and are better equipped to learn, the natural result is higher grades. Students who engage in regular physical activity as part of their school day are being set up to succeed academically. So, rather than taking away from the academic environment, physical activity actually enhances it. Implementing a physical activity plan at your school can then help your students succeed, which reflects well on your school.

9 Ways to Improve Fitness Programs at Schools

There’s no denying that physical fitness programs are a key component of education. And, unfortunately, most students don’t have PE classes on a daily basis. So, how can schools develop a physical activity plan that benefits their students? Create a comprehensive plan for encouraging physical activity in your school with these tips:

1. Build out Fitness Programs to Incorporate Special Events

Kids love any excuse to celebrate! So, get them moving while they do it. One of our favorite approaches to physical activity is finding ways to incorporate physical activity into special occasions. Celebrate National Physical Fitness & Sports Month in May with contests and competitions. Although this is just one month and not the whole year, it’s an ideal way to try a lot of different activities and approaches to see what works for students and then incorporate those throughout the school year.

Depending on where your students live in proximity to the school, plan a school-wide “Walk to School Day” or a 5k Walk/Run to raise money for a good cause. Jog-a-thons or a hula-hoop relay can also be engaging fundraisers. Besides showing kids and parents that fitness can be fun, you’ll also raise money that the school can use to buy new books, computers, or other materials students need. You can also put on a spirit week event with physical activities and competitions to boost student morale.

2. Encourage Participation in School Sports

The importance of school sports sometimes gets lost in the excitement around Friday night football games and state championships. But participating in school sports programs is actually an excellent way to get kids moving after a long day in the classroom. For low-income students, this is also a beneficial option because they may not be able to afford to play in sports leagues outside of the school system.

For students who aren’t as athletic or don’t relish competition, consider starting intramural sports. These sports aren’t as competitive since participants don’t typically meet every day and they compete against each other rather than other schools. They’re also a great fit for before- or after-school activities rather than trying to find a way to fit them into the school day.

Sometimes intramural sports mirror traditional sports teams, such as soccer, basketball, or track. But this is also a perfect chance to cast a wider net and attract students who aren’t as interested in traditional sports. Intramural flag football, kickball, frisbee golf, or non-competitive activities like yoga can all be fun options, as well.

3. Invest in New Materials

All the fitness ideas in the world won’t work if you don’t have the right equipment. Sometimes the best way to encourage kids to get active is to provide them with new materials to inspire them. Depending on your budget and daily schedule, this might mean new equipment, such as new soccer balls, playground balls, or other sports equipment. You may also consider asking a local fitness expert to offer tips for new ideas that will engage students in activities.

If your budget isn’t big enough to invest in new equipment or hire consultants, don’t worry! Many schools have found success in purchasing digital resources, such as online fitness videos or dance videos. If your school doesn’t have a budget for these items, there are a lot of great free resources online that teachers can use to give students a break and get them moving, even in the classroom. You could also consider hosting fundraisers or seeking donations from the community.

4. Offer Daily Recess

When schools make recess a priority, they actually show that they are making their students’ academic success and personal health a priority, too. Research suggests that taking a break from academic instruction can help replenish attention, improve learning and boost creativity. It also gets them up and moving, providing a significant source of physical activity even in a short 15-20 minute timespan.

Many schools question the importance of incorporating recess into a day that’s jam-packed with lessons, tests, and other academic-related items to check off the list. But the truth is that recess helps kids burn off energy so they can be more productive when they return to the classroom. If your school removed recess from its schedule, consider reincorporating it to help increase physical activity opportunities for students.

5. Expand Recess Time

Although even a short recess can have positive benefits to physical fitness and academic achievement, schools can commit to expanding recess time to increase both of these benefits to their students. Studies suggest recess can contribute up to 70% of a child’s weekday physical activity. Providing an extended recess or break — for younger and older students alike — can ensure they have the time they need to get up and move.

Recess also provides a significant time for students to interact with each other in an unstructured environment. That’s not to say that teachers shouldn’t be present or engage with students during this time. But students benefit from having time in their day where they can be active with their peers and develop their social skills. When recess isn’t an option or students aren’t given enough time to engage in unstructured play, all of these benefits are diminished.

6. Incorporate Physical Activity Into Regular Classroom Lessons

On days when a formal outdoor recess isn’t an option, teachers can incorporate physical activity breaks into the classroom. Today’s digital world makes this simple and entertaining for students by providing teachers with a variety of videos and games designed to entertain and engage students as they move. Whether it’s an indoor recess or a three-to-five minute “brain break,” teachers can encourage students to get up and moving in fun and non-traditional ways that improve health and reduce negative classroom behaviors.

But physical activity shouldn’t just be considered something to do in addition to academics. There’s evidence that incorporating physical activity into academic lessons can actually help students learn more effectively. When they involve academic concepts, classroom-based physical activities showed significant improvements for on-task behavior. Other studies have found associations with greater improvements in standardized test performance, cognitive skills and attitudes.

So how can you add movement and activity to lessons? It may be as simple as asking students to jump eight times if the answer to a math problem is the number eight. Or it may require them to jump from one letter to another to spell a word. Encourage teachers to get creative and incorporate activities into different lessons to liven up the classroom and potentially benefit students’ comprehension of a subject.

7. Hold Daily Physical Education Classes

Daily physical education programs provide many benefits, especially for older students who no longer have a formal “recess” time during the school day. When planned correctly, PE classes can provide a regular place for students to exercise, reducing their risk of obesity and its related health complications.

PE classes should be planned in a way that encourages all students to participate, not just the athletes. This strategy may mean offering multiple options for students to choose from, or it may mean rotating through several activities that will appeal to different types of students. You can also introduce your students to the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award (PALA+) in PE, which offers recognition awards for individuals who establish healthy habits.

If your school does not currently offer daily PE classes for students, consider how you can increase your PE offerings so students have a regular and consistent opportunity to engage in physical activity during their school day. Be sure you’re following state guidelines for minimum wellness standards, then work to exceed those minimum guidelines. If funding isn’t available through the school system, apply for grants or look for other ways to raise funds for new equipment and additional staff if needed.

If your school can’t support a daily PE program, look for ways to incorporate smaller breaks into the day that encourage students to get up from their desks and move around. These stretch breaks should contain directions for movement, such as certain stretches and activities that get students engaged in an activity and moving around the room as much as possible.

Be sure to keep accessibility and inclusivity in mind for those breaks, your PE classes, and any other physical activity measures to meet the needs of your student population. Think toward the future and incorporate accessible activities for current and future students so everyone can enjoy an active lifestyle in ways that work for them.

8. Host After-School Fitness Programs

We’ve already mentioned intramural programs as a great way to encourage activity, but there’s plenty more to say about after-school activities and their role in increasing physical activity opportunities. Many students already stay in after-school programs until their parents finish work, so offering fitness programs during after-school hours will give these students the chance to get up and get active after a long day of school.

But you can target more than just the kids who already stay after school!

Offering after-school fitness programs can get kids moving in a low-pressure environment. There are no grades, no performance requirements, and nothing is mandatory. This is the time to have fun! Consider offering after-school programs such as dance, pickup basketball, or volleyball, or simply open up the track for students to jog either alone or in a group — supervised, of course.

This option can offer more fitness opportunities to students without conflicting with an already jam-packed school day. And it’s a perfect way for students to get moving and relax after a full day of academic work.

In elementary schools where younger students may not be ready to run on the track, you can offer soccer clubs, dance clubs, or even just open up the playground for after-school play. Recruit parents to volunteer to help run these clubs and, of course, always make sure parents are supervising children who may linger to play on the playground after school.

9. Add Age-Appropriate Playground Equipment to Schools

Sensory boards, can help experience new textures, sights, and sounds.

A big part of encouraging students to be active is providing them with the equipment they need to get moving. Investing in age-appropriate fitness equipment should be an essential goal of any school that is committed to cultivating an active lifestyle in its students. From playgrounds for younger children to fitness equipment for older children, it’s important to invest in high-quality, age-appropriate equipment that makes a difference.

At various ages and stages of life, kids need different things from their playground equipment. Of course, equipment for younger kids is going to be smaller in size, but it may also lean into the skills those kids are developing. For example, toddlers start to explore the world around them more, so equipment that engages the senses, like sensory boards, can help them experience new textures, sights, and sounds.

Older kids will likely be more interested in honing their motor skills. Equipment that engages their muscles and coordination skills in new ways is both fun and effective for their development, and they can also use more physically demanding equipment.

Some things to consider with playground equipment for toddlers include:

  • Gross motor skills: Gross motor skills are an important part of toddlerhood, so look for toys that engage these large-scale body movements like walking and climbing.
  • Supervision: Caretakers need to keep a very close eye on small children, so playground equipment shouldn’t get in the way of supervision or block an adult’s line of sight.
  • Crawlers and walkers: Include equipment and surfacing that serves toddlers whether they’re walking or crawling, as well as those who may have other mobility needs.

When building a playground for school-age kids, be sure to consider:

  • Motor skills: While more developed than toddlers, younger school-age kids are still building their fine motor skills, like pushing buttons or throwing a ball. Include equipment that builds these skills. Playgrounds for kids up to 12 years old might present more opportunities for challenges, like a challenge ladder, to follow their more developed coordination and abilities.
  • Socialization: As children develop, they may seek to play with others close to their age. Provide opportunities for school-age children to cooperate and play together, such as imaginative play structures or games.
  • Cognitive skills: At this age, kids begin to build up their brainpower. Consider adding games that engage their minds, like activity panels.

After preschool, the world of playground equipment really opens up. Kids can tackle more challenging physical activities and interact with their friends in all sorts of ways. The playground often plays a role in emotional development by helping kids build confidence, understand their limits, and cooperate with peers.

10. Purchase Fitness Center Equipment for Older Kids and Teens

After around the age of 14, playground equipment becomes less enticing, but outdoor physical activity is still hugely beneficial. At this age, fitness equipment might be a better fit. It’s a great way to get kids and teens outside and moving, with the added benefit of fostering positive perspectives about exercise.

With outdoor fitness equipment, these kids can learn more about structured exercise. You might use fitness center equipment to teach middle and high schoolers about topics like using equipment properly, taking rest days, and working a variety of muscle groups.

This kind of knowledge is essential for helping kids develop healthy relationships with exercise. Outdoor fitness equipment for high schoolers and middle schoolers can serve as a helpful stepping stone between the playground and an intimidating indoor gym, encouraging activity and removing discomfort about unfamiliar equipment. Being separated from younger kids often helps older kids and teens engage in exercise in a way that feels more grown-up.

Outdoor fitness equipment works similarly to the equipment you might see in an indoor gym, but it doesn’t require any electricity or an expensive membership. Some types of fitness equipment for older kids and adolescents include:

  • Fitness stations, which might include elements like climbing nets, ab benches, or pull-up bars.
  • Stationary rowing structures to work the arms, back, and chest muscles.
  • Balance beams to help build coordination.
  • Dip/leg raises to work the arms, back, chest, abs, and leg muscles.
  • Cargo nets and ladders for full-body workouts.

A fitness center addition may vary depending on the population at your school and, of course, the budget you have. The first step is to take inventory of what you have and analyze its effectiveness. Do your students engage with the playground you have in place? What seems to be missing?  Once you answer these questions, you can then begin to develop a plan for what needs to be updated, replaced, or purchased for the first time.

Purchasing outdoor equipment offers another opportunity to keep accessibility and inclusivity in mind for your student population. Integrate inclusive playground equipment in your outdoor play options to encourage everyone at your school to get outside and get active.

Find Ways to Get Students Active in School With Little Tikes Commercial

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There are many ways to incorporate physical fitness into a child’s day. And it’s never been more important to ensure that these children are active and moving around. Besides the physical health benefits, the benefits to mental health and academic achievement are significant and shouldn’t be ignored.

At Little Tikes Commercial, we’re committed to helping schools improve student health and achievement by offering a variety of playground and fitness equipment for all ages, stages, and interests. We believe that physical fitness shouldn’t just be contained to a PE class or a 20-minute recess. It’s a way of life that we’re privileged to help you cultivate for your students now and in the years to come.

Contact Little Tikes Commercial for a quote and discover ways your school can improve its activity programs.