Healthier Schools & Latino Kids Research: Access to Activity Programs


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The need for structured physical activity programs at school

Studies have shown that schools can help increase physical activity and promote healthy behaviors among Latino children by providing structured physical activity programs.

In a study of 459 middle school girls (73% Latina) who participated in Get Moving!, a school-based intervention aimed at increasing physical activity and decreasing sedentary behaviors, girls who received the intervention were significantly less sedentary (P <0.05) and more intrinsically motivated to engage in regular exercise (P <0.05) compared with girls who received no intervention.53

Participants in the Grand Canyon Trekkers program, a 16-week structured walking program among low-income Latino children, showed a 37.1-percent improvement in cardiorespiratory fitness compared with baseline.54

Younger children may also benefit from structured physical activity programs. In a study of 423 primarily Mexican-American preschool children (90% Latino) in Head Start centers in San Antonio, Texas, the Míranos! program significantly increased active play levels (P < 0.05) among children who participated in treatment groups compared with those in the control group.55

The advent of exergaming, which combines exercise and video gaming, provides another opportunity for schools to incorporate technology to promote physical activity during the school day.

However, as one study found, exergaming may be more appropriate as an adjunct to other forms of aerobic exercise and should not be the sole modality of physical activity.

The study involved 53 urban 4th-grade children (mean age: 10.3 years; 73% low socioeconomic status) who participated in the Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) program during their physical education classes.56 The program lasted 9 months and included 30 minutes of physical activity three times per week, including DDR, aerobic dance, and other sports and fitness activities. During the data collection days, students were separated into two groups, each starting with either 15 minutes of DDR or 15 minutes of aerobic dance and switching to the other activity for the last 15 minutes. Moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA), self-efficacy, and enjoyment were measured for each activity.

DDR significantly improved self-efficacy (P < .001) and enjoyment (P < .001) compared with aerobic dance, but aerobic dance significantly lengthened the time spent in MVPA (P < .01).

More studies are needed to evaluate other forms of exergaming, but these findings suggest that DDR can be a useful supplement to traditional forms of physical activity in school-based physical education programs.

Structured physical activity programs and weight status

Structured, school-based physical activity programs may help increase physical activity levels and improve obesity-related outcomes among Latino children.

Although many of the programs described above had some success increasing physical activity among Latino children, some showed no significant changes in weight or BMI, perhaps suggesting that more time would be needed to fully evaluate program impact. Additionally, school-based programs alone are not sufficient for reducing overweight and obesity.

Interventions that increase intrinsic motivation and instill positive meanings about physical activity as a health-related behavior are needed to bridge the gap between the time spent in and out of school.57

Latinos less likely than peers to play sports

A cross-sectional study of data from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health found that Latino youths had the lowest participation in organized sports at school or school-based after school activities when compared to non-Latino children; girls, in general, also had lower rates of participation.58

Another cross-sectional study, using information collected from students in grades 8-11 for a sports interest survey, found that Latino boys were significantly more likely to participate in sports than Latino girls.

The survey also showed that, of all sports, Latino boys and girls were most likely to participate in soccer.59

Kwon et al used accelerometry data from fifth and sixth graders from 14 schools in Suburban Cook County and found that girls in majority Latino schools (>70%) engaged in 10 fewer minutes of MVPA than students in majority white schools, and boys in Latino schools averaged 14 fewer minutes of MVPA than students in white schools (p<0.01). More strikingly, the average MVPA time for Latino girls during school hours was 7 minutes.60

A national study revealed that lower physical activity levels among Latina adolescent girls were attributable to differences in the schools that they attended.61

Latina females attended schools that were poorer and more racially segregated than those attended by White females, and activity levels at those schools were lower than higher-income and more ethnically-diverse schools.

No differences were found in physical activity levels between Latina and White girls who attended the same schools, but interestingly, Latino males had higher levels of activity than White males who attended the same schools.

A survey of high school students in Connecticut found higher rates of obesity and lower levels of physical activity among Latinas compared to their peers. Latina teens were also more likely to fail physical education classes.

The participants identified several barriers to participating in physical activity both in and out of school. In-school barriers included refusal or reluctance to chance clothes, especially early in the day; worry about appearance; self-consciousness about exercising in front of boys; and lack of interest in activities. Out-of-school barriers included homework, after-school jobs, and caring for children, younger siblings, and family members.62

Latinos value afterschool activity programs; lack participation

Nearly 80 percent of Latino parents believe that afterschool programs provide opportunities for their children to be physically active, and 84 percent supported public funding for these programs, according to data from the America After 3PM survey.63

Fitness-focused afterschool programs have been shown to increase fitness among Latino youth, but Latino children have few opportunities to participate in these types of programs due to a number of factors, such as a lack of time for outdoor play, unsafe neighborhoods, and lack of physical activity sites in their communities.62,64

Afterschool fitness programs that take place on school grounds directly after class have eliminated some of these barriers.

For example, the SCORES program is an afterschool soccer and literacy program where students participate in soccer drills or games three days a week for up to 3 hours each day. On the other two days, students learn creative writing or performance skills, or participate in community service projects.

A randomized trial involving six urban schools (42% Latino) compared three schools receiving the SCORES program with three schools receiving no intervention.65

The SCORES program increased moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) after school but only significantly so in youth whose BMI was above the 85th percentile at baseline. In these children, MVPA increased by 3.4 minutes after school (95% confidence interval [0.3, 6.5]) and 18.5 minutes on Saturdays (95% confidence interval [3.4, 33.6]), equating to an increase of 35 minutes per week.

The success of this program is credited to a model in which the SCORE organization works with the school district to train afterschool staff in implementing the curriculum with the existing infrastructure.

Latino students lack opportunities to walk, bike to school

Changes to the built environment, particularly increased motor vehicle traffic and the expansion of suburbia, have affected how children travel to school; often, the built environment does not include measures for increased walkability or bikability, which has contributed to the trend of increased motorized transportation to and from school.

In urban areas, where home-school proximity may otherwise encourage children to travel by bike or on foot, traffic and travel safety are of concern.

In particular, a study of California public schools showed that schools with larger Black and Latino populations were more likely to be located close to heavily trafficked roads.66

Decreased rates of walking and biking to school have been linked to higher levels of childhood obesity.67

Safe routes to school are needed

The National Center for Safe Routes to School was established in 2006 and serves as a resource for local and state Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) programs; in July 2012, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act was signed into law, which includes funding for SRTS under the Transportation Alternatives (TA) program.68

A cross-sectional study investigated the relationship between SRTS improvement projects and the transportation habits of children attending schools along completed project routes.

Parents of third through fifth grade children attending 10 elementary schools in California, 4 of which were majority Latino, were provided with surveys; the survey questioned whether the parents had noticed the improved route, whether the improvement was along the child’s usual route to school, and if they would say their child walks or bikes to school more frequently, less frequently, or the same amount as before the project was built.

Students who attended the 4 majority Latino schools and for whom the completed project was along their normal route to school reported significant increases in walking and biking to school compared to all other schools.69

Walking school buses can impact active transport to school

Walking school buses have also shown some success among Latino school children, as mentioned previously in the case study of Maybury Elementary.70

A randomized trial investigated the walking school bus in 149 4th-grade children (61% Latino) from eight low-income public elementary schools in the Houston Independent School District in Texas.71

Compared with the control group, children who participated in the walking school bus intervention significantly increased their active commuting (P < .001) and moderate to vigorous physical activity (P = .029).

A study of 25 Latino elementary students (ages 5-11) in Albuquerque, N.M., reported slight increases in weekly physical activity compared with baseline, but the difference was not significant (P = .08).72 Challenges to implementing the walking school bus have been cited.

In the Maybury case,70 parent participation was the main barrier to widespread implementation. Work- and family-related demands often prevent parents from volunteering for the program.

Rotating walking school bus leaders and coordinating with the nearby high school to recruit older students to help with the program may help to retain the current routes and expand to additional routes. Another goal of the program is to equip the school with areas for securing bikes to allow for biking school buses in the future.

More from our Healthier Schools & Latino Kids: A Research Review »

References for this section »

(53) Spruijt-Metz, D.; Nguyen-Michel, S. T.; Goran, M. I.; Chou, C.-P.; Huang, T. T.-K. Reducing Sedentary Behavior in Minority Girls via a Theory-Based, Tailored Classroom Media Intervention. Int. J. Pediatr. Obes. 2008, 3 (4), 240–248.

(54) Hawthorne, A.; Shaibi, G.; Gance-Cleveland, B.; McFall, S. Grand Canyon Trekkers: School-Based Lunchtime Walking Program. J. Sch. Nurs. 2011, 27 (1), 43–50.

(55) Yin, Z.; Parra-Medina, D.; Cordova, A.; He, M.; Trummer, V.; Sosa, E.; Gallion, K. K. J.; Sintes-Yallen, A.; Huang, Y.; Wu, X.; et al. Miranos! Look at Us, We Are Healthy! An Environmental Approach to Early Childhood Obesity Prevention. Child. Obes. 2012, 8 (5), 429–439.

(56) Gao, Z.; Hannan, P.; Xiang, P.; Stodden, D. F.; Valdez, V. E. Video Game-Based Exercise, Latino Children’s Physical Health, and Academic Achievement. Am. J. Prev. Med. 2013, 44 (3 SUPPL. 3), S240–S246.

(57) Knowlden, A. P.; Sharma, M. Systematic Review of School-Based Obesity Interventions Targeting African American and Hispanic Children. J. Health Care Poor Underserved 2013, 24 (3), 1194–1214.

(58) Yu, S. M.; Newport-Berra, M.; Liu, J. Out-of-School Time Activity Participation Among US-Immigrant Youth. J. Sch. Health 2015, 85 (5), 281–288.

(59) Pharr, J.; Lough, N. L. Considering Sport Participation as a Source for Physical Activity Among Adolescents. J. Phys. Act. Health 2014, 11 (5), 930.

(60) Kwon, S.; Mason, M.; Welch, S. Physical Activity of Fifth to Sixth Graders During School Hours According to School Race/Ethnicity: Suburban Cook County, Illinois. J. Sch. Health 2015, 85 (6), 382–387.

(61) Richmond, T. K.; Hayward, R. a; Gahagan, S.; Field, A. E.; Heisler, M. Can School Income and Racial/ethnic Composition Explain the Racial/ethnic Disparity in Adolescent Physical Activity Participation? Pediatrics 2006, 117 (6), 2158–2166.

(62) Hannay, J.; Dudley, R.; Milan, S.; Leibovitz, P. K. Combining Photovoice and Focus Groups Engaging Latina Teens in Community Assessment. Am. J. Prev. Med. 2013, 44 (3 SUPPL. 3), S215–S224.

(63) America after 3pm and the Hispanic community. Available at: (accessed Mar 16, 2015).

(64) London, R. A.; Gurantz, O. Afterschool Program Participation, Youth Physical Fitness, and Overweight. Am. J. Prev. Med. 2013, 44 (3 SUPPL. 3), S200–S207.

(65) Madsen, K.; Thompson, H.; Adkins, A.; Crawford, Y. School-Community Partnerships: A Cluster-Randomized Trial of an after-School Soccer Program. JAMA Pediatr. 2013, 167 (4), 321–326.

(66) Green, R. S.; Smorodinsky, S.; Kim, J. J.; McLaughlin, R.; Ostro, B. Proximity of California Public Schools to Busy Roads. Environ. Health Perspect. 2004, 112 (1), 61–66.

(67) Gaffron, P.; Niemeier, D. School Locations and Traffic Emissions – Environmental (In)Justice Findings Using a New Screening Method. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2015, 12 (2), 2009–2025.

(68) Safe Routes to School. Available at: (accessed April 21, 2015).

(69) Boarnet, M. G.; Anderson, C. L.; Day, K.; McMillan, T.; Alfonzo, M. Evaluation of the California Safe Routes to School Legislation: Urban Form Changes and Children’s Active Transportation to School. Am. J. Prev. Med. 2005, 28 (2 Suppl 2), 134–140.

(70) PolicyLink. Safe Routes to School at Maybury Elementary School in Detroit Available at: Routes to School Maybury Elementary Detroit.pdf (accessed Dec 20, 2012).

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(72) Kong, A. S.; Burks, N.; Conklin, C.; Roldan, C.; Skipper, B.; Scott, S.; Sussman, A. L.; Leggott, J. A Pilot Walking School Bus Program to Prevent Obesity in Hispanic Elementary School Children: Role of Physician Involvement with the School Community. Clin. Pediatr. (Phila). 2010, 49 (10), 989–991.

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