Officials look to increase children’s fitness in pandemic

Amid concerns that physical fitness among children has declined during the novel coronavirus pandemic, attention is being focused on exercises to improve physical health that can be done while wearing masks and social distancing.

In fiscal 2021, fifth-grade elementary school students and second-year junior high schoolers had low scores across the board in national physical tests. One reason is thought to be that schools in many areas nationwide have not held swimming classes and running events due to infection prevention measures.

Alternative to running

Funabashi municipal Yakuendai Elementary School in Chiba Prefecture canceled its annual December long-distance running event for the second consecutive year to keep its student body from gathering in crowds. The school has turned its focus toward jumping rope this fiscal year.

Students have continued to work on jumping rope to achieve the goals they set in terms of technique and number of jumps. The school issued cards so students could jump rope after school and document the number of times they work on each skill. Individual workouts were also encouraged.

At a Jan. 19 jump rope event for sixth graders, students competed to see how many times in a row they could jump backward, do a ken-ken jump or other jumps they could perform in three minutes.

“I worked hard during my free time and over winter vacation. I’m glad it paid off,” said Yuto Taniguchi, a 12-year-old boy who was able to perform double unders (two rope rotations in one jump) 41 consecutive times.

“I find children’s physical endurance is declining amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Wearing a mask does not make much difference when jumping rope,” said Kazuki Nomura, a 26-year-old teacher. “And jumping rope can be enjoyed on their own, keeping a distance from others. It can also improve cardiovascular function. It’s really a timely exercise.”

All-time low

The prolonged pandemic is clearly reflected in the decline of physical fitness among children.

In national physical performance tests from this fiscal year, score totals hit record lows for fifth-grade boys and second-year junior high school boys since the current version of the survey started in fiscal 2008.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry in May 2020 instructed education boards and other entities nationwide to hold off on swimming classes unless they can employ infection control measures such as distancing of at least 2 meters between students. As a result, many schools have suspended swimming classes.

Schools were also asked not to allow students to go on long-distance runs, which would put a strain on the heart and lungs if they wore masks.

The Japan Sports Agency produced videos showing examples of how physical education teachers instruct gymnastics apparatuses, dance and other sport events, taking into consideration infectious diseases, and began posting them on its website last fiscal year.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear power plant disaster, physical performance tests in Fukushima Prefecture have been showing a steady decline in children’s overall fitness as well as a tendency for weight gain because youths have been playing less outdoors.

Aiming to overcome those issues, schools began using a notebook in fiscal 2015 in which children can record their results in fitness tests and also document their daily exercise activities.

In fiscal 2021, the notebook was distributed to about 15,000 fourth graders.

Since fiscal 2018, a jump rope competition has taken place online in which children can register and challenge each other on the number of times they jump rope over a given period of time. More than 100 schools in the prefecture have participated in the competition this fiscal year.

Jump rope contest

“Children became very enthusiastic about the challenge as they competed against kids from other schools,” said Osamu Toida, assistant principal of Hanawa municipal Hanawa Elementary School, which has won the top prize in the category for students in higher grades three times.

Thanks to such efforts, children’s fitness is making its way back to pre-earthquake levels across the prefecture. The percentage of overweight children has decreased, and some grades have exceeded the national average in physical fitness tests.

“At a time when playing outside is restricted, physical education classes provide a valuable opportunity for all children to be physically active,” said Yuji Mori, professor of physical education at Aichi University of Education.

“It is imperative that schools provide training opportunities by actively teaching exercises that can be done without forming crowds, including jumping rope, the use of gymnastics apparatuses and dance.”