Action Schools! BC: A 'Whole School' Approach to Getting Kids Active
Originally a 10-school CIHR pilot project, it now operates in every BC school district

Ten years ago, a day in the life of an elementary school student in British Columbia meant mostly sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher. Physical activity was limited to going outside at recess and lunch and, on average, two 40-minute physical education sessions a week, with 15 minutes of each of those sessions lost to “class management” – getting instructions and getting to and from the gym or school grounds.

Total structured physical activity? About 50 minutes a week.

Today, most elementary school students live a different daily life. Math class might begin with two minutes of jumping on the spot to get the circulation going. Recess or lunch might feature skipping games – with instructions and skipping ropes supplied by the teacher. Back in class, there could be a quick discussion on healthy eating. Every day is to include one half-hour of exercise.

Total structured physical activity? At least 150 minutes per week.

What happened to turn things around so drastically in Canada’s third most populated province?

In 2002, Dr. Heather McKay of the University of British Columbia was disturbed by what she saw around her: 30% of kids aged 5–17 were overweight or obese, and 50% of youths aged 12–19 were not physically active enough to reap any health rewards.Footnote 1

“I was being confronted by fairly compelling data that suggested children were a lot less physically active than they had ever been,” says Dr. McKay. “I thought this was a tremendous problem that is going to have devastating consequences if we do not take immediate action.”

Focusing on schools – because that’s where kids spend 50% of their waking hoursFootnote 2 – she began bringing together key players: parents, teachers and principals, and decision makers in the BC Ministries of Education, Health and Sport. She talked to leaders from 2010 Legacies Now, a BC organization created to support Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics, and JW Sporta, a physical activity and sport education consulting company with a strong record of working with BC’s schools.

“We pulled them all together,” says Dr. McKay, “and said, ‘Let’s not talk about whether we need to do something; let’s talk about what we’re going to do.’ They responded to that.”

Together, they began a bold experiment called Action Schools! BC (AS!BC) to get kids moving. Instead of just focusing on increased physical education classes or extra-curricular activities, AS!BC takes a “whole school” approach of integrating physical activity into every aspect of the school life, with the teacher as the pivotal person to make it happen.

Physical activity does not mean sports

Because not all kids are interested in or excel at sports, AS!BC focuses on creating simple and effective exercises that can easily be done in the classroom or the schoolyard. “It isn’t geared to any particular sports activity,” according to AS!BC Executive Director Bryna Kopelow. “It’s not competitive in any way.” There are no winners or losers, she says. “It’s about providing teachers with a lot of ways in which their kids can be active,” says AS!BC Technical Director Jennifer Fenton.

As a first step, Dr. McKay led a two-year, 10-school pilot project to study the impacts of AS!BC. “To have credibility you have to have the evidence,” says Dr. McKay. “We did baseline and follow-up studies with the children and showed a substantial increase in fitness. A huge win was in cardiovascular health.”

Using a standardized test – repeating a 20-metre run at a steadily increasing pace – AS!BC students showed a 20% greater improvement in cardiovascular fitness than kids who weren’t in the program. They experienced a significant reduction in systolic blood pressure and were less at risk for cardiovascular disease.Footnote 3 The positive results were even greater when the AS!BC model was ‘scaled up’ and delivered to 1,300 children in 25 schools across BC.

The BC Government, which had declared it wanted the province to be the healthiest jurisdiction ever to host the Olympic Games, was impressed by the outcomes.

“The results were strong,” says Meghan Day, Director of BC’s Healthy Schools, Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Weights. “They did a comprehensive evaluation and have continued to do them throughout the years. Looking at various health and behavioural outcomes, they continue to have very positive, strong results, which, of course, helps with continued and sustained investment in the program.”

Now up and running in all of BC’s school districts, the AS!BC support team operates with 70 regional trainers – mostly current or former teachers – who conduct 400 to 500 workshops annually at which educators learn how to integrate physical activity into the whole school day. In these group sessions, the teachers learn how to add aerobics to an arithmetic lesson or include stretching exercises in science.

Along with what AS!BC Executive Director Bryna Kopelow calls a “renewed appreciation for the joy of physical activity,” they come away with a bin stocked with hand grippers, stretchy bands, skipping ropes, resource materials and DVDs illustrating two-minute activities their students can do.

The BC government, which provides $1.7 million in funding for AS!BC, increased its physical education goals in 2008, requiring that all students from kindergarten to Grade 12 get 30 minutes of daily physical activity. Many teachers have come to rely on their AS!BC training and resources to meet the quota. If they need more help, they can enroll in refresher workshops or have a trainer come to their classroom to help reorganize it for increased physical activity.

“We don’t have physical education specialists in our schools any longer,” says Ms. Day, “so increasingly, our generalist teachers were having to teach physical education and weren’t feeling equipped to do that. AS!BC really provided a way to work towards a solution to increase opportunities for physical activity in the school setting.”

Support for the program, strong from the outset, intensified when AS!BC researchers were able to show that the extra time devoted to physical activity did not detract from academic performance.Footnote 4 While the program hasn’t yet been proven to enhance learning, AS!BC co-investigator Dr. Patti-Jean Naylor of the University of Victoria says the “compression of efficiency” – combining gyrations with geography or muscle movement with math – pays other dividends.

“Teachers have told us that when they do these types of activities they feel their relationship with the kids is strengthened,” says Dr. Naylor, who co-authored a paper that showed AS!BC sparked “positive changes in the children and school climate” and improved communication. “So we know there are social benefits as well.”Footnote 5

The view from the classroom

“My sense is that teachers love it. Many teachers don’t have a lot of background in physical education. They want to do physical activity and they see the importance of it, but they are personally unsure how to go about it. We give them training and we give them resources. We give them lots to choose from, so they can pick activities they’re comfortable with that match up with the kids in their classroom.”

Debbie Keel, recently retired elementary school teacher and AS!BC regional trainer

A U.S. review, examining various physical activity programs for children, cited AS!BC as an exemplary model for other jurisdictions because it “brings together government policy and leadership, adequate training of education professionals, adequate provision of resources for schools, and a clear set of expectations for physical activity.”Footnote 6

In 2006, McKay and Naylor launched the Healthy Eating pilot project to encourage students to cut back on junk food and increase their intake of fruits and vegetables. As with the physical activity program, teachers got training on healthy eating activities they could try in their classrooms as well as an “action pack” with placemats and utensils such as a chopping board, measuring cups and scrub brush to introduce their students to the foods. Based on its positive impacts – increases in the number of servings of fruits and vegetables consumed per day and the variety of fruits and vegetables consumedFootnote 7 – Healthy Eating was incorporated into the provincial AS!BC program in 2009.

The AS!BC success factors

Why did AS!BC succeed so well in British Columbia? Drs. McKay and Naylor cite these success factors:

  • Gathering evidence – researchers regularly measured outcomes to assess impact and fed the results to the schools and stakeholders.
  • Building partnerships – researchers worked hand-in-hand with the province, school boards, administration, teachers’ groups and parent advisory councils.
  • Supporting implementation – teachers received equipment, guidebooks and planning materials, as well as ongoing training.
  • Managing change – policies such as a teacher-on-call service to cover for educators attending workshops were put in place to facilitate change.

Despite the widespread success of the program, Dr. McKay is reluctant to take credit.

“It’s an idea that many people had. It was just getting those people in the room. What I did was serve as a catalyst for action. The fact that so many talented people were ready and willing to take action is the true success. I would not and could not have done this alone.”

Measures of success

  • 400-500 AS!BC training workshops are held annually.
  • 86% of schools have participated in AS!BC workshops.
  • During the 2012-13 school year, 7,326 teachers, support staff and school administrators attended training workshops.
  • Trainers have conducted more than 1,000 ‘student leader’ workshops to show older students how to help younger kids be more active in the classroom, at lunch and recess.

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