Summertime Equals Fitness Loss for Middle-Schoolers; University of Wisconsin Research Shows Activity Drops Off

Children get in shape during the summer, spending their time biking, running, playing T-ball and tennis. Or do they?

In a finding that surprised the researchers, pediatricians and sports medicine experts at UW Health found that fitness improvements by 17 students who participated in a fitness-based physical education program at school lost those benefits during the three months of summer. The study appears in the June 2007 edition of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

The study focused on a group of overweight middle schoolers at Riverside Bluff Middle School in Stoughton. The youngsters participated in a year-long lifestyle-based physical education class that emphasized nontraditional activities like biking and walking instead of traditional sports.

At the beginning and end of the school year, UW researchers measured the fasting insulin levels, maximum oxygen consumption and body composition of the middle-schoolers. After nine months in the fitness intervention program, the children had improved in each category. Three months later, another measurement showed that maximum oxygen consumption had declined over the summer, while body fat percentage and fasting insulin levels had increased. None of the children were given specific exercise instructions during the summer.

“To us, this was really surprising,” says Dr. Aaron Carrel, a pediatric endocrinologist with UW Health and lead researcher on the study. “We thought kids would be active during the summer, but the results of the third measurement show that they weren’t. Clearly, fitness levels change when kids are out of school.”

Randy Clark, who manages the exercise science lab at UW Health Sports Medicine and performed the fitness scans on the children, was similarly surprised.

“The results are almost inconceivable to someone from my generation,” he says. “We lived outside, played capture the flag, kick the can and wiffle ball until it was too dark to see. In fact, I can remember coming in for dinner and sitting on the edge of my chair the whole time. I could not wait to be excused because I wanted to get back out to the action and play with my friends.”

While the study focused on overweight children, Carrel and Clark believe that the findings are relevant to all children, since overall fitness plays a more significant role in children’s health than weight or body mass index. To Carrel, the study’s findings offer proof not just that school-based fitness programs can have a tangible impact on improving students’ health, but that parents may need to consider becoming more involved in helping their children stay fit year-round.

“I hope this study will draw more attention to the role of fitness in overall health, and encourage parents to make sure their kids are staying active – throughout the year,” says Carrel.