There’s a fitness gap between public and homeschool students

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Homeschooled adolescents may have significantly lower abdominal strength and endurance than public school students who are required to take part in physical education programs, according to a new study.

This was despite no significant difference between the two groups in measurements of body mass index, the researchers found.

The study compares specific health metrics between two sets of students age 12 to 17 who have been a focus of the researchers over the past couple of years.

While previous work showed homeschoolers should expect no added risk to their general health over time, the new study draws a few disparities from a dataset Laura Kabiri, a lecturer at Rice University, gathered at Texas Woman’s University.

Public school students in the study proved significantly better at performing curl-ups, a metric that measures abdominal strength and endurance.

Their daily use of backpacks weighing up to 25% of their body weight, sufficient to engage core-stabilizing muscles, could explain that, the researchers write.

“This is actually a hot topic in pediatric health and wellness and I don’t want anyone to think we are encouraging students to carry heavy loads in their backpacks,” Kabiri says.

“We all know that carrying heavy backpacks can lead to musculoskeletal problems. In fact, the American Chiropractic Association recommends a backpack weigh no more than 5-10% of a student’s body weight.

“However, we are hypothesizing that heavy backpack use among public schoolers could be one explanation for the difference in core strength seen in our study,” she says.

“Improper instruction and form for abdominal exercises among homeschoolers is another. We really don’t know the root cause but do see a difference. This is why we as health and wellness professionals need to do a better job reaching out to the home-school community,” she says.

The researchers drew the metrics from 132 participants evenly split between home and public school students. The homeschoolers took standardized fitness tests to measure body mass index, the ability to run for endurance, and the capacity to perform curl-ups and push-ups. The researchers matched these results to public school student data collected as required by states.

Push-up numbers revealed another interesting disparity. Public school students were on average able to meet requirements, but homeschooled students narrowly missed them.

“There was no significant difference in the mean for the push-up test, but it was significant for their health classification,” says coauthor Kendall Brice, an undergraduate student who will graduate this May.

For instance, she gave an example in which 17-year-old boys in public schools might be required to do 20 push-ups and averaged 20.4, while home-schoolers did only 19. “There’s no significant difference there, but what we see is that more homeschool kids dropped out of the healthy category,” which mirrors the actual results of the study, Brice says.

“How does that happen? From my experience, our coaches and PE teachers often told us, ‘You have to do 20,'” she recalled. “Or we’d ask how many we have to do. So the mean is similar, but public school kids knew the boundary, so they were able to push just past it.”

Kabiri says homeschool adolescents’ fitness deficits could affect their health in the near term and in the future. The solution is to provide better advice for those students and their parents.

“The main conclusion is that we need to do a better job as health professionals in reaching out to this community,” Kabiri says. “They’re very well intended, and very willing to learn about technique and proper forms for doing these exercises.”

The new study appears in the American Journal of Health Education. The Texas Physical Therapy Foundation supported the study.

Source: Rice University