Stay in or play out: how much does the weather influence physical activity in school children?

Posted by Sophie Rodenburg on July 5, 2019

Have you ever wondered how much daily weather conditions can actually impact physical activity levels in children and on which days of the week the impact is more prominent? To date, there is strong evidence that moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is associated with many health benefits in childhood. In Canada, insufficient physical activity in children remains a major public health concern. Recent studies from various regions indicate that weather conditions can play a role in determining physical activity levels in children, and the influence of weather on physical activity levels is more noticeable in areas with wide seasonal fluctuations in temperature, precipitation, and other weather attributes. The focus of our study was to understand how much weather conditions influence physical activity levels in children during school days compared to non-school days.

In this study, we used data from 972 elementary school children from 60 schools across the province of Alberta, Canada. Children who participated in our study were instructed to wear a pedometer between 7:00 am to 9:00 pm each day to record their daily step counts. Information on weather attributes was obtained from local weather stations in Alberta for the same time frame. Results of our study showed that changes in ambient temperature, cloud coverage, and daily amount of precipitation affected children’s daily step counts, particularly on non-school days (i.e. Saturdays and Sundays) compared to school days. We found that with every 1°C increase in feels-like temperature, children took 26 more steps per day, whereas with every 1-unit increase in cloud coverage, they took 61 fewer steps per day. The impact of precipitation was even more prominent; compared to no precipitation, heavy precipitation (i.e. > 5 mm/ day) resulted in 1022 fewer steps per day. This means that with more noticeable fluctuation in weather attributes, these changes in physical activity levels become more substantial, consequently detrimental weather can act as a barrier to adequate daily physical activity levels especially in regions with prolonged colder and / or wet seasons.

Our findings suggest that the influence of weather on physical activity is more evident on non-school days. This difference may arise from the fact that schools provide an environment for children to engage in regular physical activity opportunities through physical education classes, mandatory recess periods, and existing policies and programs in place such as the provincial curriculum requirement by Alberta Education of a minimum of 30 minutes of daily physical activity (DPA) for students in grades 1 to 9. As a result, seasonal or unexpected variations in weather conditions tend to have less impact on physical activity levels on school days. In contrast, many spontaneous, unplanned and extracurricular activities that are generally planned by families on non-school days are more likely to be affected by changes in weather.

Although the findings of our study cannot be generalized to other populations given methodological limitations (such as short time span used for data collection or non-random selection of participating schools), they reflect on the important fact that families and home environment play a major role in shaping healthy lifestyle habits in childhood that is likely to continue into adulthood. Parents role modeling of active lifestyle and providing access and opportunities for their children to remain active despite poor weather conditions can inspire physical activity in their children. Walking or cycling to and from school contributes greatly towards achieving required daily step counts. In this regard, parents can be supportive by providing warm clothing and necessary equipment for their children. That being said, it should be noted that successful promotion of physical activity in children also requires population-level interventions to be in place. Developing weather-appropriate and indoor physical activity opportunities for wet and colder climates is equally important to minimize the impact of unfavorable weather conditions on children’s physical activity levels. In summary, we recommend that parents and guardians need to be more mindful of exploring means and opportunities to encourage all-year-round active lifestyle in their children. Likewise, governments need to invest further in developing and extending weather-appropriate infrastructures to promote physical activity for all ages.

Thank you to Dr. Katerina Maximova, PhD and Associate Professor from the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, for providing this post.

Dr. Maximova received her PhD in epidemiology at McGill University, specializing in the prevention of chronic disease through the research of improving modifiable behaviors such as physical activity and obesity.

The article can be accessed through the link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.17269/s41997-019-00176-6