Last month we invited our signatories to contribute to the TSC blog answering one simple question: “Why should schools expand learning time?” Today’s submission is from Karen Voci, Executive Director of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, on the health benefits of expanding learning time. 

There are lots of very sound and compelling academic reasons why schools should expand learning time. But additional time can also be a powerful preventive health strategy for students who spend far too much time in their chairs during typical school hours.

Those of us who have worked for years to end the childhood obesity epidemic in this country have been frustrated as the physical education and activity time in schools has shrunk in the interest of more time “on task” in the classroom. Adding time to the school day—in addition to allowing students to explore the arts or mathematics—gives them opportunities for exercising the bodies that support their brains.

We all know that one-third of our countries’ children are overweight or obese. And not surprisingly, the lack of physical activity is one of the main causes. At a time when children are becoming more apt to spend their afternoons in front of a TV, computer or smart phone, rather than outside playing and running, budgetary constraints and increasing pressure to improve standardized test scores have led school officials to shorten or even eliminate the recess time and gym classes that many of us had growing up.

In Massachusetts, where our Foundation is based, the MA ELT Initiative is working to add significantly more time to the school day at public schools across the state, and they provide some great examples of how physical activity can be included in extended day programs. For instance, Mass 2020, the state’s partner in leading the intiative, has found that in addition to education enrichment activities such as robotics, music, and drama, an extended school day also allows much-needed time for athletics—everything from swimming to ping-pong or even Tae Kwon Do—that a typical school day just can’t accommodate. This is exactly the kind of extended day programs that are best for our kids.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day; however research has found that only 42% of 6-11 year olds and less than 8% of adolescents aged 12-19 years actually reach that goal. But in addition to helping avoid the long list of consequences associated with overweight and obesity—including diabetes and heart disease—exercise helps kids excel in the classroom; recent research confirms that physical activity is closely tied to children’s cognitive performance and testing ability.

The health field—and those of us who fund it—can be powerful partners in the national effort to expand learning time for our students. And TSC can join health leaders in their efforts to secure healthy school environments for all children. Working together, we can help ensure that every child is educated for a successful and healthy life.

Karen Voci is the Executive Director of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, which provides the tools, training,, and leadership to build healthy communities in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. Under Karen’s leadership, the Foundation focuses on combating childhood obesity by changing environments where children spend their time; promoting health equity through training and consultation; and supporting Harvard Pilgrim employees to give back to the communities they live and work in through service and giving. Information related to research used in this blog can be found in “Overweight and Obesity in Massachusetts: A Focus on Physical Activity.”