Student health: What Australia can learn from Nordic countries

Student health: What Australia can learn from Nordic countries

Last year, the Active Healthy Kids Australia report card scored Australian kids a D-minus for their physical activity levels, ranking our nation 32 of 49 countries.

The majority of research on student health suggests physical activity not only positively associated with improved health and fitness but also learning outcomes – particularly in maths.

Katja Siefken, a lecturer at the University of South Australia, associate professor Carol Maher who is NHMRC Career Development Fellow at the University of South Australia and associate professor Charlotte Pawlowski from the University of Southern Denmark recently discussed these benefits in an article published in The Conversation.

They say that whole the Australian curriculum says children should engage in “regular movement-based learning experiences”, how regular this needs to be and how long for is not specified or even recommended.

The researchers pointed to Nordic countries, which enforce weekly minimums for physical education in schools. Denmark has a mandatory 60-90 minutes of physical education a week, and in Finland physical activity classes are also mandatory. The Norwegians provide an average two to three hours a week.

“The Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance recommends all physical activity classes be delivered by specialist, tertiary-qualified physical education teachers. However, a recent review by Active Healthy Kids Australia found no Australian states or territories are meeting this recommendation,” they said.

The good news, they say, is that the Australian national curriculum is on the right track in many ways.

“Gone are the harrowing days of waiting to be picked for a team, being made to run for punishment, and measuring children’s weight or skinfolds in front of the class,” they said.

“The national curriculum emphasises enjoyment and participation in movement-based activities, positive challenges, leading to personal and social outcomes, intended to set children up for lifelong activity.”

However, by failing to mandate physical education time each week, the researchers said Australia risks physical education being “pushed to the periphery” and losing out to other priorities.

“Australia could learn from the Nords by introducing nationwide mandatory physical education policy that ensures every school in Australia schedules weekly classes as part of the core curriculum,” they suggested.

They said the government could also address student health issues by mandating every school in Australia delivers high-quality physical education through tertiary-trained physical education teachers for all students.

“Without these mandates, great things are happening in some schools. However, other schools are slipping through the cracks,” they said.

“It’s time to learn from the Nordic countries to ensure high-quality physical education for all. Because the right physical education can lay the foundations for an active lifestyle, for life.”