Nova Scotia researchers has revealed that peer mentoring in schools is a simple, fun and inexpensive way to significantly increase kids' physical activity levels.
The increased physical activity levels significantly improved both academic test scores and cardiovascular fitness levels, they found.
Funded principally by the Nova Scotia Research Foundation and supported by community partners including the Heart and Stroke Foundation, a research by Dr. Camille Hancock Friesen and her team at the Maritime Heart Center (MHC) found that peer mentors could significantly influence the amount of physical activity kids have throughout the school day.
The MHC team created a Heart Healthy Kids (H2K ) Lunch program, which included three games that peer mentors could lead during lunch time once every two weeks. At least one MHC staff or adult volunteer was present at each H2K Lunch to ensure that the peer mentors were adequately supported.
"Using positive influences on children to be physically active works. It may be that social reasons for physical activity trump other influences for kids. Unlike adults, they are not as motivated by concern for weight control or long-term health," said Dr. Hancock Friesen.
Students selected as peer mentors, who were age mates with other team members (grades 4, 5 and 6), received training in organization, positive feedback and team building.
Once the participants had eaten lunch, they participated in the games, including relays, tag and ball games. The peer mentors recognized participants who were particularly involved or helpful and participated in focus groups to evaluate the program.
"There was an average increase among peer-mentored students of over 1,000 steps a day. It is clear that peer mentoring has a role to play in increasing school day activity levels among students," said Dr. Hancock Friesen.
The Heart Healthy Kids study tracked more than 800 students from 10 schools who used pedometers to track their daily steps. Both control and study schools participated in educational sessions that included basic heart anatomy and physiology, nutrition, smoking prevention and kid-friendly food label reading skills.
The intervention schools took part in the peer mentoring program. Pre- and post-study, all students were evaluated for waist circumference, height and weight and cardiovascular fitness.
While there were improvements in cardiovascular fitness and heart health knowledge in both groups, the intervention schools had significantly increased activity levels and cardiovascular fitness.
"As in adults, if we can keep the activity levels high in kids over the long term, the ultimate result will be improved BMIs and waist circumference measurements," said Dr. Hancock Friesen.