Hadassah University Medical Center researchers recently found that the Body Mass Index (BMI) of children who were given additional physical education classes at school is considerably lower than for those who did not have the benefit of this extra exercise.

“In the past, children would come home from school, toss their backpacks aside, and run out to play,” says Prof. Michael Wilschanski, head of the research team and Director of Hadassah’s Pediatric Gastroenterology Unit. “Nowadays,” he notes, “children come home and sit in front of the computer or television, hardly exercising at all. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the rate of child and adult obesity has strongly increased in the past few years. Today 10 percent of all children are overweight.”

Conducted in two Jerusalem schools, the two-year study involved 82 children, aged 9 to 11 from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. The control group attended two, 45-minute physical education classes a week as usual. The test group had twice as many physical education classes, bolstered by a curriculum that focused primarily on aerobic exercise. In addition, the children in the test group and their parents participated in nutrition classes.

Two years later, the BMI of the boys in the test group was 2.5 times less than that of the boys in the control group. Although the researchers note that “there was no significant change in the BMI among the girls,” they conclude that “hormonal effects and compliance at this age may be responsible for the sex differences in this study.

Prof. Wilschanki notes, “it is important to incorporate more physical activity in the school program. It’s as important as math, English, and computers.”

The research findings were published in the March 23, 2011 on-line issue of European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.