Impact of COVID-19 on fitness levels in schools and need for continued support for PE programs
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Children playing football
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on fitness levels, particularly for children.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, school closures and remote learning have significantly reduced children's opportunities for physical activity, leading to a concerning decline in fitness levels.

There are several academic and practitioner studies that back this, discussing numerous factors that led to a decrease in fitness levels. The lockdowns, social distancing measures, and closure of gyms and other fitness facilities including schools made it challenging for people to maintain their pre-pandemic fitness levels. As a result, there has been a significant decline in fitness levels across the globe – and this could have long-term implications for the health and well-being of an entire generation of children.

The extended impact on children

When discussing young people especially, they had a significant source of physical activity cut off - their schools. With the shift to online learning and the need for social distancing, many schools had to move learning online and in many cases have had to cut funding for sports programs.

This limited the opportunities for children to engage in physical activity and contributed to a further decline in fitness levels. A study by Sportz Village shows that except for flexibility, most children's performance declined across all fitness parameters.

[Click here to view graphics: Impact of COVID-19 on children's health] 

Physical education (PE) programs are critical for promoting physical activity and healthy lifestyles in children. Back in 2018, a study conducted by the Sportz Village Foundation looked at the impact of extended holidays on the physical fitness of children. Especially during the summer, when schools are closed for a long gap, there is a lack of access to alternative options for physical activity during which there was a drop in fitness levels. In the case of the pandemic, this extended leave lasted for more than a year in many cases, severely affecting fitness levels.

In addition to that, the impact has been even more significant on low-income communities, where children may not have access to safe places to play outside of school.

The Annual Status on Education Report (Rural) 2022 highlights this - showing that in the last four years, there was no real progress in increasing the number of playgrounds in rural schools - with the number going up slightly from 66.5% in 2018 to 68.9% in 2022. This is further exemplified by the data from a study conducted by Sportz Village, where the drop in fitness levels was more pronounced in government-run schools in two major Indian cities of Chennai and Lucknow.

This disparity in sports engagement across different income groups can be situated in evidence gathered from various sources in other countries like the United States. According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, approximately 70% of children belonging to families with an income exceeding US$105,000 – which is four times the poverty line – took part in sports activities in 2020. On the other hand, participation rates were significantly lower for middle-income households, with only around 51% of children participating in sports, and for families at or below the poverty line, where the participation rate dropped to just 31%.

The lack of physical activity and reduced access to sports programs can have significant long-term consequences for children's health. Research has shown that regular physical activity is critical for maintaining a healthy weight, promoting cardiovascular health, and reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Without access to sports programs and physical education, children are at risk of developing health problems later in life. Therefore, it is crucial that schools find ways to support physical education programs and sports programs, even in the face of budget constraints caused by the pandemic.

These reduced levels are further exemplified by the World Health Organization’s Physical Activity Profile for India in 2022. The profile highlighted a prevalence of physical inactivity in close to 75% of all adolescents, with 66% mortality due to non-communicable diseases, i.e., those that are easily preventable through physical activity. The worrying numbers further make a stronger case for breaking down barriers and easier access to sport and physical activity.

Impact on non-sporting outcomes

Sports and physical activity have a significant impact on non-sporting outcomes, such as education and life skills. Participation in sports can improve academic performance, increase motivation, and enhance critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Physical activity can also have a positive impact on mental health, reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improving self-esteem and confidence.

Studies have shown that regular participation in sports can improve academic performance by increasing cognitive function and concentration. Additionally, sports can help develop teamwork and leadership skills, which are valuable in all aspects of life.

To analyze the extent to which sports participation can affect students’ academic performance, a survey by Sportz Village was employed to identify the proficiency levels of students in two cities across their programs in three core subjects, i.e. Maths, Science and Social studies. As part of the HCL Foundation’s “Sports for Change” initiative, the survey also looked at their attendance levels, and the results were used to discern any differences in academic performance and school attendance.

The results indicated slightly higher grades amongst the students who were regularly taking part in physical activity. On average, across the three subjects, there was a 25% increase in grades among those students.

In the larger scheme of things, a research study on the fundamental right to physical literacy in India by the Sports and Society Accelerator further highlighted, “Physical education is the entry-point for an understanding of one’s own body and mind and can result in lifelong participation in physical activity. It can also improve psychological and social skills and significantly improve life expectancy and quality of life” (SSA, 2022, p. 15)

In conclusion, the impact of sports and physical activity on non-sporting outcomes is diverse and significant. It promotes academic performance, develops life skills, promotes healthy lifestyles, and can have positive effects on mental health, resilience, personal development, and career success. As such, it is important to encourage and support participation and explore ways in which this is happening in a post-COVID world.

[Click here to view graphics: PE in schools is an inclusive, fun and scalable model for introducing kids to play]

How organizations in India are integrating sports in schools

An ongoing story series between the Sports and Society Accelerator and an Indian content and news platform The Better India has been covering stories of change through sport in the past year. A number of organisations covered in the story are working in different corners of the country both inside and outside the schooling system.

While many of them have been affected in the wake of the pandemic, they are using innovative ways not just to resume their programmes, but also to reach an increasing number of children and young people and provide them access to physical activity - especially in schools. They are cognizant of how the pandemic has limited this access, and are taking active steps to address these issues.

For example, Sportz Village launched the Play At Home (PAH) program during COVID-19 to keep children moving at home. Their existing EduSports curriculum was aptly amended to be conducted at home. Online physical education classes were conducted where the children got to interact with trainers. And results show that children from schools that took the PAH program were fitter by up to 16% on different fitness parameters as compared to others.

Another noteworthy example includes Dribble Academy Foundation, set up in 2015, which has been able to reach out to 3000 children in the last seven years - especially in a few villages surrounding New Delhi.

The founder, Pradyot Voleti, mentions in the story: “Since setting up our programme in Gejha, we’ve managed to work with over 3,000 children between the ages of seven and 14 across eight villages. Children from these villages have gone on to earn full scholarships in good schools and colleges. The essence of what we do at DAF is to bridge the gap of basic sporting infrastructure in villages through basketball.”

The story further highlights that the Foundation currently set up a programme in Gejha village (a village on the outskirts of Delhi) at NEM Public School, a private school for children from low-income backgrounds. In total, they are currently operating out of six government schools in the Noida area and two interior villages of western Uttar Pradesh, a major state in India.

Another example is that of the Umoya Foundation, working out of Delhi. The organisation utilises sports to work with children with disabilities, and the story highlights that they create year-long programmes that build a child’s fundamental movement and play and also teach them foundational sports skills. Further, “they also make modifications to their existing programmes for those with disabilities, under the educational programme known as ‘Adapted Physical Education’.”

The way forward: Sports is education

As we recover from the pandemic, the way forward represents several unique opportunities. Based on the learnings from the past few years, numerous ideas have come to the fore that should be discussed.

Given the reduced funding to sports, as schools grapple with budget cuts, there is a need to emphasise how sports should be seen as an integral part of education.

● Inclusivity: Physical education programs hold the potential to be accessible to all children, regardless of background or ability, promoting inclusion and community-building.

● Safety: They also offer a safe and structured environment for physical activity, particularly for children who may not have access to safe outdoor spaces or who may face other barriers to physical activity.

● Scalability: Physical education programs are scalable and sustainable, and can be accessed by all children, making them a practical solution for promoting physical activity and overall well-being.

● Academic outcomes: Physical education programs have shown to have positive academic outcomes, including better attendance rates and improved academic performance.

When it comes to enabling a child's playing experience, parents are crucial stakeholders. Therefore, schools can use this opportunity to engage with parents and involve them in their child's educational journey. This can help parents understand the benefits of play and physical activity for their child's development, leading to parents becoming more supportive of their child's participation in physical activity outside of school hours.

This can lead to improved education, health, and fitness outcomes for the child, as well as a stronger school-family relationship.

This is further helped by organizations like Sportz Village are helping integrate sports into schools, while simultaneously utilizing their social potential. There is a need to bring like-minded organizations and practitioners together to share ideas, practices, and resources. Learnings being transported from one place to another seek to only expand how schools and non-governmental organizations can work with each other.

By recognizing sports as an integral part of education, we can ensure that future generations have access to the benefits of physical activity and play, promoting a healthier and happier society.


About the authors

Mridul Kataria is the Chief of Staff at the Sports and Society Accelerator, with extensive academic and field experience in the sport for social change sector.

Nupur Gupta heads LTV Products and Partnerships at Sportz Village. She has more than eight years of experience of designing and executing sporting programs for children.


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