Is this your child’s idea of playing sport?

A school-based physical activity study called ATLAS (Active Teen Leaders Avoiding Screen-time) has achieved the double ‘whammy’ – a marked improvement in fitness among adolescent boys and a reduction in television and video game usage.

Chief investigator Professor David Lubans, from the University of Newcastle’s Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition, said ATLAS used simple and enjoyable resistance-training exercises to prise teenagers off the lounge.

The intervention was delivered over two school terms, with 14 Hunter and Central Coast high schools taking part. Results were published last year by the leading US journal Pediatrics.

“Boys were included in ATLAS if they didn’t meet current international guidelines for physical activity or recreational screen-time – that’s less than 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day or more than two hours of recreational screen-time per day,” Professor Lubans said.

“We found a significant difference between the intervention and control groups for TV, computer and video game usage – those involved in ATLAS spent approximately 30 minutes less per day using screens, compared with the control group.

“The program improved boys’ muscular strength and competency levels in performing resistance training exercises such as push-ups and squats. Also, consumption of sugary drinks fell by approximately 1 litre per week.”

Participants received a purpose-built smartphone app for physical activity monitoring, goal setting, assessment of resistance training technique and motivational messaging.

The research team also trained PE teachers in the effective delivery of the ATLAS program and provided information on motivational teaching strategies. During school sport, students participated in high-intensity fitness challenges and modified ball games designed to be fun and highly active.

PhD student Jordan Smith, lead author on the Pediatrics paper, believes that body weight resistance exercises can be safely performed by children as young as seven or eight.

“If they are playing sport they are old enough to benefit from resistance training using body weight and elastic bands,” Mr Smith said. “That doesn’t mean heavy free-weights, powerlifting or bodybuilding – just high-repetition, low-load exercises.”

Professor Lubans said that teenagers might be more willing to switch-off their smartphones and be active outdoors if they were aware of the consequences of excessive screen-time and have the skills and confidence to be active.

“Parents often tell their kids not to do something without providing a rationale and the common response from adolescents is ‘well, I’m going to do it anyway’,” he said.

“High levels of screen-time are associated with low fitness and poor psychological wellbeing in adolescents. Having screen-time rules, and reminding teenagers that Facebook contact doesn’t have the same benefits as face-to-face contact, will help to get most teenagers moving more often.”

* HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.

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