School Uniform Linked To Children Getting Less Exercise, Study Finds

Forbes March 8, 2024


School Uniform Linked To Children Getting Less Exercise, Study Finds

School uniform policies may be hindering children from exercising, according to a global study.

Children were less likely to meet the recommended minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity a day in countries where school uniforms were the norm, researchers found.

And while girls are less likely to meet the target than boys, at primary school age the gap was wider when students were required to wear uniforms.

Childhood obesity has become a major public health concern, with almost 15 million children and adolescents in the U.S. considered obese, around one in five.

But only one in five adolescents meet the World Health Organization’s recommended 60 minutes a day target for physical activity.

Although researchers say that their findings do not prove that uniform hampers activity, they align with the results from previous studies, indicating that it could be a barrier.

Girls, in particular, may feel less comfortable taking part in exercise if they are wearing certain types of clothes, such as skirts or dresses, researchers say.

“Schools often prefer to use uniforms for various reasons,” said Dr. Mairead Ryan, a researcher at the Faculty of Education and Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge, who led the study, published in the Journal of Health and Sport Science.

“We are not trying to suggest a blanket ban on them, but to present new evidence to support decision-making.

“School communities could consider design, and whether specific characteristics of a uniform might either encourage or restrict any opportunities for physical activity across the day.”

Researchers looked at data on the physical activity of more than 1.1 million children aged five to 17, in 135 countries and regions. The majority of schools mandated uniforms in around three quarters of the countries examined.

In countries were uniforms were the norm, around 16% of children met the WHO target, compared with 19.5% where uniforms were less common.

Boys were more likely to meet the target at all ages, but at primary age the gap between boys and girls widened from 5.5% in non-uniform countries to 9.8% where most schools mandated uniforms.

“Girls might feel less confident about doing things like cartwheels and tumbles in the playground, or riding a bike on a windy day, if they are wearing a skirt or dress,” said Dr. Esther van Sluijs, of the MRC Epidemiology unit and co-author of the study.

“Social norms and expectations tend to influence what they feel they can do in these clothes. Unfortunately, when it comes to promoting physical health, that’s a problem.”

A previous study carried out in England found that the design of girls’ P.E. uniforms put them off taking part in some forms of exercise.

But clothing could also be a factor in the amount of exercise children take outside formal P.E. lessons, Ryan said.

“Activities like walking or cycling to school, breaktime games, and after-school outdoor play can all help young people incorporate physical activity into their daily routines,” she said.

“That’s why we are interested in the extent to which various elements of young people’s environments, including what they wear, encourage such behaviors.”

Further research should focus on whether school uniforms cause lower activity levels, Ryan said.

“Regular physical activity helps support multiple physical, mental, and well-being needs, as well as academic outcomes” she added.

“We now need more information to build on these findings, considering factors like how long students wear their uniforms for after school, whether this varies depending on their background, and how broader gendered clothing norms may impact their activity.”

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