The initiative has an endearing backstory. It was developed six years ago by St. Ninians Primary School in Stirling in central Scotland after children and teachers felt the pupils needed to be fitter.
Other schools quickly realized the value, and it started to spread. It is now happening in around half of Scottish primaries and a quarter of those in England, along with schools in the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Nepal and Australia.
With all this enthusiasm, it was time for researchers to ask the obvious question: Is it really worth doing? We have been part of a collaboration between the Universities of Stirling and Edinburgh that has published the first results.
The backdrop to the Daily Mile is a global crisis in childhood physical activity. The World Health Organization recommends that children get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each day — the kind that gets them out of breath. They should also do some resistance exercise each week to strengthen their muscles. Fewer than 40 percent of children achieve these recommended levels.
Independent of the exercise you do, too much time spent sitting or lying down (while awake) is also bad for your health. The recommended maximum is two hours of TV per day and limited sitting the rest of the time. Again, fewer than 40 percent of children around the world achieve this. The healthiest people do high amounts of moderate/vigorous exercise and spend low amounts of time sitting/reclining.
The number of overweight and obese children has increased dramatically in recent years, and lack of exercise and too much sitting around is part of the reason. Overweight kids are at higher risk of diabetes, strokes and heart disease in later years, so this directly affects both their quality of life and potentially their life span.
Equally alarming, children’s physical fitness has significantly declined since at least the 1980s. They can’t run as far without stopping as their parents could.
What we found
Governments have introduced various research-led interventions to combat these threats — increasing the intensity of physical education classes, for example — but with mixed success. There are basically two hurdles: Any intervention needs to be something children will keep doing, and it has to improve their health.
The Daily Mile has the attraction of being both simple and designed not by researchers but by a teacher and some children. The fact that so many schools are participating suggests that children keep doing it.
So how about the effect on their health?
Children do the Daily Mile at whatever time of day their teacher chooses. Typically they do a mixture of walking and running, doing laps of a school field or playground in normal school clothes and shoes. Children set their own pace and are free to talk to other pupils or teachers as they go.
Over the course of an academic year, we compared 391 children ages 4 to 12 in two local schools. One school was about to introduce the Daily Mile while the other was not.
At the start and end of the study, we measured each child in the following ways: fitness, physical activity levels and sedentary time, and body fat.
The children in the school that introduced the Daily Mile increased their moderate/vigorous physical activity by nine minutes per day (about 15 percent) and cut their sedentary time by 18 minutes per day (around 6 percent). They saw an increase of about 5 percent in how far they could run, while their skin folds reduced by an average of 4 percent.
Some question the impact of the Daily Mile on lesson time, but there’s little reason for this. We have previously shown in almost 12,000 children that a single bout of similar exercise made them more awake, increased their attention and verbal memory, and improved their feelings of well-being. We have also heard anecdotal claims about other benefits, such as better sleep and diet.
In short, our results suggest the Daily Mile is definitely worthwhile. In the future, we need to expand our research to understand whether it can work in different educational settings, such as high schools, and whether it works equally well for pupils from different backgrounds.
For the moment, the Daily Mile can certainly be part of the solution to child health and well-being. Look out for it: It could be here to stay.
Moran and Brooks are senior lecturers at the University of Stirling, where Chesam is a doctoral researcher. This article was originally published on theconversation.com.