Benefits of School-Based Physical Therapy
Again, as I’ve discussed in previous blog posts, the goal of school-based physical therapy is to address physical impairments that impact a student’s ability to negotiate their school environment and participate in school activities (PE, recess, field trips, emergency drills or actual emergencies, etc.). However, there are many additional benefits of physical therapy in the school setting. Aside from the obvious purpose of school-based physical therapy, there are also overall health, cognitive, and mental/emotional benefits from the exercise & physical activity that physical therapy facilitates. As school-based physical therapists, we have a wealth of knowledge and expertise regarding human development & motor proficiency. As we are already present within the school system, interacting with students, parents, teachers, etc., there has been a movement to involve pediatric school based PTs in the development of school programs, routines, and curricula to improve health, wellness, fitness, injury prevention, and obesity for all students (not just those who receive direct physical therapy services). With this increased influence over school-wide programs, routines, and curricula my hope is that we can continue to improve outcomes for all students.
So what exactly are these other benefits?
Bone Health: Research suggests a positive association between physical activity involving resistance training and increased bone mineral density. Bone mineral density is an important factor in bone structure and overall bone health/strength.
Blood Cholesterol: Research shows children & adolescents who are more physically active have healthier levels of blood cholesterol, displaying lower levels of triglycerides & low density lipoprotein (LDL), known as the “bad” cholesterol, and higher levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), known as the “good” cholesterol.
Body Mass Index & Overall Estimates of Body Fat: Research also shows children & adolescents who are more physically active have lower body mass indexes (BMI) and lower estimates of body fat. BMI is a measure of body composition, and when matched for age & gender, children & adolescents who fall between the 5th and 85th percentile are typically considered within a healthy range. Children & adolescents who have high BMIs are at a higher risk for cardiovascular risk factors & obesity in adulthood.
Insulin Sensitivity: Research shows children & adolescents who are more physically active have improved insulin sensitivity. Poorer insulin sensitivity can increase the risk of your child developing type 2 diabetes.
Cardiorespiratory Endurance: Cardiorespiratory endurance is the ability of the cardiovascular & pulmonary systems to deliver oxygen to the body appropriate to the level of physical activity performed. Aerobic exercise is extremely important for children & adolescents and has been shown to improve cardiorespiratory endurance as well as overall aerobic fitness. Research shows positive associations between aerobic fitness and blood pressure (both systolic & diastolic), cholesterol, BMI, measures of body fat, and arterial stiffness (stiffness of the walls of an artery), suggesting that increased aerobic fitness has better outcomes in these areas.
Blood Pressure: Research shows children & adolescents who are more physically active displayed healthier values (lower) of systolic blood pressure. Positive associations were also found between children & adolescents with increased cardiorespiratory endurance and healthier values (lower) of systolic & diastolic blood pressure.
Cognitive Function: Research suggests that physical activity (single bouts of physical activity, overall physical fitness, and participation in physical activity interventions) benefits children’s mental & cognitive functioning. Children who received more regular physical activity/exercise were shown to perform better on cognitive tests, especially in the realm of testing speed & accuracy. Furthermore, there was also evidence of a dose response effect meaning that longer bouts of physical activity and more frequent bouts of physical activity was positively associated with better cognitive performance.
Brain Structure & Function: Although research in this area is limited, as this imaging (magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and electroencephalography) has only been used investigatively to study the relationship between physical activity/fitness and children’s brain function in the last 10-15 years, physical activity has been positively linked to improving children’s performance on specific mental tasks and in positively modifying brain structure & function.
Learning: Research also suggests that physical activity, especially aerobic fitness, supports specific brain structures responsible for executive function and memory which are important for learning and for children’s overall capacity to learn. One study illustrated physical activity & overall physical fitness were associated with better retention of information, an important facet in learning.
Academic Achievement: Research suggests that increased physical activity shows positive impacts on mathematics & reading scores. Interestingly, physical activity that was built into the curriculum had more of a positive effect on math & reading scores than physical activity implemented as a break from the academic curriculum.
Mood: Research also suggests that increased physical activity in children & adolescents may improve mood, decrease depression, and enhance overall self-esteem & confidence.
Catherine C. Skelton, PT, DPT
Pediatric Physical Therapist
Academy of Pediatric Physical Therapy. (2012). The Role of School-Based Physical Therapy: Successful Participation for All Students [Fact Sheet]. American Physical Therapy Association.<https://pediatricapta.org/includes/fact-sheets/pdfs/12%20Role%20of%20SchoolBasedPT.pdf>
Developed by the School-Based Physical Therapy Special Interest Group of the Section on Pediatrics, APTA, & special contributors Cecere S, Kaminker MK, Oden A, Ray L.
Donnelly JE, Hillman CH, Castelli D, Etnier JL, Lee S, Tomporowski P, Lambourne K, Szabo-Reed AN. Physical Activity, Fitness, Cognitive Function, and Academic Achievement in Children: A Systematic Review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016; 48(6): 1197-1222. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000901.
Ganley KJ, Paterno MV, Miles C, Stout J, Brawner L, Girolami G, Warren M. Health-Related Fitness in Children and Adolescents. Pediatric Physical Therapy. 2011: 23: 208-220. 10.1097/PEP.0b013e318227b3fc.
Racette SB, Cade WT, Beckmann LR. School-Based Physical Activity and Fitness Promotion. Physical Therapy. 2010; 90 (9): 1214-1218. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20100039.