Cross-country skiers in Petikko, Vantaa, on 5 December 2022. The availability and accessibility of physical activities is believed to explain what are marked difference in the physical condition of primary school pupils between cities and rural municipalities. (Jussi Nukari – Lehtikuva)

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THE LARGER THE CITY, the better the physical condition of primary school-aged children, reveals Move, a nationwide study that measures the physical condition of fifth and eight-grade pupils across Finland.

Almost half of the pupils tested in rural municipalities were in such a poor physical condition that it can have a negative impact on their health and well-being, the study found.

Mikko Huhtiniemi, the development manager of the monitoring system from the University of Jyväskylä, viewed that the regional differences may be attributable to the availability and accessibility of hobbies and physical activities.

“Regional differences in the physical functional capacity may stem from there being more hobby and physical activity opportunities near pupils in cities than in the countryside,” he analysed in a press release. “In the countryside, the distances to school and hobby facilities are often long, which leads to a lot of sitting in a car.”

The study measured the endurance, strength, speed, mobility, balance and basic motor skills of approximately 107,000 primary-school pupils during the course of last autumn.

Pupils in Western Uusimaa and North Ostrobothnia were found to be in the best condition, with both boys and girls in the regions outperforming the national average. The worst results, by contrast, were produced in Kanta-Häme, Päijät-Häme, Ostrobothnia and Lapland.

Huhtiniemi told YLE in December that the results are alarming from a number of perspectives even though on the whole they did not deteriorate from the last year. Roughly 40 per cent of the tested pupils, for example, had such a low physical functional capacity that it make it challenging to go through everyday life.

“After the school day, you don’t have the energy to go out and play with your friends. Maybe the couch and smart devices beckon you in the evening. There’s a risk of a vicious cycle that further reduces activity,” he warned.

Tommi Vasankari, the director of the UKK Institute, reminded in the press release that the physical ability of children has an impact on the well-being of individuals both today and in future, with the limitations later possibly reflected in studies, work, morbidity, retirement, and social and welfare costs.

The results had some positive trends, too. The endurance of primary-school pupils has deteriorated in the longer term, but it appears that the deterioration halted between 2021 and 2022.

Huhtiniemi stated to the Finnish public broadcasting company that in other respects the results have varied only moderately during the seven-year history of the study – as is expected from a population-wide study.

Municipalities and well-being services counties, he underscored, should broaden the range of measures adopted to encourage pupils to improve their physical functional capacity. Also families have a critical role in promoting physical activity among children and young people.

“Reporting on regional differences offers decision-makers an opportunity to target measures and resources at the right places,” he stated to YLE.

Huhtiniemi also acknowledged that many municipalities have succeeded in promoting physical activity with, for example, measures adopted within the framework of Schools on the Move. Among the effective measures are activity-focused recesses and activity-based lessons.

“I personally believe physical activity at school is particularly important because it reaches all pupils equally on a weekly basis and you have trained top professionals promoting their functional capacity,” he said.

Aleksi Teivainen – HT

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