School uniforms may prevent children from getting enough exercise

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Written By Margonoe Tumindax

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School uniforms may restrict movement, making children less active

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Wearing a uniform to school has been linked to young children getting insufficient amounts of exercise, particularly girls.

With many children missing the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation of at least 60 minutes of exercise per day, Mairead Ryan at the University of Cambridge and her colleagues decided to look into why.

They analysed existing data about the physical activity levels of more than 1 million children aged 5 to 17 years old from 135 countries and territories, which they compared with the results of their own online survey on how common school uniforms are in these places.

Overall, boys were 1.5 times more likely than girls to meet the WHO recommendation for physical activity. But that gap is nearly twice as great among younger children who live in places where school uniforms are the norm, says Ryan.

Among secondary school students (generally aged 11 to 17), uniforms didn’t appear to be linked to any sex-related differences in physical activity. However, in primary schools (aged 5 to 10), the gap between girls and boys was 9.8 percentage points in areas where at least 50 per cent of schools required uniforms, compared with 5.5 percentage points where such requirements were lower.

The difference in results between the older and younger children might be because children of primary school age get more physical activity from sporadic movements throughout the day, whereas adolescents get most of their total physical activity from structured activities, according to the researchers.

“Girls might feel less confident about doing things like cartwheels and tumbles in the playground, or riding a bike on a windy day, if they are wearing a skirt or dress,” says team member Esther van Sluijs, also at the University of Cambridge.

While the findings don’t show that uniforms are the cause of lower rates of exercise, they align with other studies that suggest children, particularly girls, find uniforms restrictive.

A study in Chile, for example, found that when children wore sport-friendly uniforms to school rather than traditional attire, such as skirts, blouses, ties and blazers, they had better cardio-respiratory fitness. Concerned that uniforms were inhibiting athletic activity in children, Ireland’s former minister of sport Jack Chambers mentioned the issue in a December 2022 report on youth sport.

While the findings don’t support a “blanket ban” on uniforms, they suggest that further research is needed, particularly into whether changing uniforms could help. “We don’t know, for example, whether it’s the design of the uniform, the fabric or the shoes, specifically, that might be the factor,” says Ryan.

Topics:

  • children/
  • exercise

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