PERSPECTIVES – News and Comments1
Homeschoolers and Health
Home School Researcher, Volume 34, No. 4, 2019, p. 1-4
Laura S. Kabiri, PT, DPT, PhD, CSCS
Department of Kinesiology, Rice University firstname.lastname@example.org
Keywords: homeschooling, home education, health
FOR THE PAST four years, my research has been dedicated to answering the following question: How healthy are homeschoolers? What began as an opportunity to examine a largely unexplored population for my dissertation has continued beyond graduate school in an effort to learn more. Although not a homeschooler myself, my best friend in college was a product of the homeschool system and quickly defied every stereotype I held. She was highly intelligent, industrious, socially adept, college ready, and incredibly well-rounded. Obviously, there was a lot of misinformation about this population! As a researcher, I decided to investigate one of the other prevailing homeschool stereotypes: Homeschool children are more sedentary and thus less fit than their public school peers.
Before we report what our research has uncovered so far, let me state that I have only the utmost respect for the homeschool community. The families I have met never cease to amaze me with their warmth, intelligence, and untiring devotion to the complete education of their offspring. I am incredibly grateful for the trust and opportunities these families have given me and hope that this information will be received with the same spirit in which it was collected: open-mindedness and a dedication to the health of all our youth, homeschool and public school. Indeed, whether you homeschool your children or choose the enroll them in public school, you will find tips for improving childhood physical health and development in this article.
Prior to my work, three other peer-reviewed articles dealt with fitness among the homeschool population. In 2004, Welk et al compared aerobic fitness and physical activity between 117 homeschool children aged 9-16. They found no difference in activity levels between homeschool and public-school children but slightly lower aerobic fitness in older homeschool males (Welk, Schaben, & Shelley, 2004). Long et al also examined physical activity levels between homeschool and public school children as well as their nutrition in 2010 using 72 age and gender matched pairs between 7-11 years old. They concluded that there was no difference in nutrition but did report higher levels of physical activity in the public-school group (Long, Gaetke, Perry, Abel, & Clasey, 2010). Finally, Cardel et al explored body composition (amount of lean vs. fat mass) and dietary intake of 95 homeschool and public-school children between 7 and 12 years of age. They concluded there was no difference in physical activity between the groups but reported poorer body composition and diet in public school children (Cardel et al., 2014).
While informative, these three studies represented contradictory results and a relative void in the overall knowledge about youth health. There was an obvious need for more studies among homeschoolers with expanded age ranges and more comprehensive assessments of health to help establish consistent trends in the health and wellness of the homeschool population.
Fitness Assessment in The Homeschooled: The F.A.I.T.H. Study – Part I
In 2016, I began formal data collection on my dissertation examining the health of the homeschool population. The FAITH Study – Part I consisted of data from 145 homeschool children aged 5-11 years from the Greater Houston Area. I met families in parks, homeschool groups, and in their homes to assess the physical fitness, body composition, and motor skill proficiency of their children. We assessed their health-related physical fitness including cardiorespiratory fitness (aerobic fitness) and muscle strength as well as their body composition as body mass index, percent body fat, and waist circumference. We also examined their motor skills including coordination, agility, and fine motor skills. Participants were required to have completed at least one year of homeschool to void any prior effects from public school programs. Our population was predominantly white, non-Hispanic and nonpoor, consistent with the general American homeschool population (Redford, Battle, & Bielick, 2017).
Cardiorespiratory and Muscular Fitness
The findings from the cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness portion of The FAITH Study – Part I were published in 2017 (Kabiri, Mitchell, Brewer, & Ortiz, 2017a). In this article, we reiterate that cardiorespiratory fitness, or how effectively the body takes in and uses oxygen during activity, is important to assess in elementary school. It has been linked to cardiovascular and metabolic disease risk, academic performance, and even physical activity levels later in life. Likewise, muscular fitness has been shown to go beyond movement and posture and into relationships with bone health, self-esteem, and cardiovascular disease risk as well. To measure these outcomes, we used the Progressive Aerobic Capacity Endurance Run (PACER), curl-up, and 90° push-up tests from the FitnessGram® test battery. Only children aged 8-11 years were used for this portion of the study to mimic public school testing procedures resulting in 75 homeschool children and 75 randomly selected public school children as age and gender matched pairs.
We found that compared to public school children, homeschool children had significantly lower levels of muscular fitness both in the abdominal (part of the “core” muscles) and upper body (arm and shoulder) areas. Homeschool children performed an average of 12 curl-ups and 15 push-ups while public school children did an average of 47 curl-ups and 23 push-ups. However, there were no differences in cardiorespiratory fitness between children who were schooled at home or in the public school system. In fact, homeschool children ran an average of 29 laps with an estimated oxygen efficiency (VO2max) of 45 mL/kg/min while the public school group averaged 27 laps and 44 mL/kg/min. While we do acknowledge that children in public school might be “trained to the test” since it is a part of their yearly physical education class, the FitnessGram® is designed to be successfully completed regardless of practice. Moreover, the large differences seen in muscular fitness between homeschool and public school children were unlikely to be caused simply by lack of practice.
Opportunities for Improvement
In order to improve the muscular fitness of the homeschool population, there are a couple of very simple exercises that can be done. First, abdominal strength can be best addressed by doing crunches. However, to get the most out of the exercise, knees should be bent with the feet unanchored (don’t sit on their feet or allow them to put them under a couch/bench/etc.) and they should begin and end each crunch with their head resting on the floor or mat. They should curl-up their trunk while sliding their hands along the floor at their sides just until their shoulder blades clear the floor. Sitting on their feet or allowing them to anchor underneath a heavy object allows the body to “cheat” by using the stronger hip flexor muscles to complete the exercise rather than the abdominal or stomach muscles. Completing a full sit-up likewise tends to utilize the hip muscles over the stomach as well. A simple curl-up with good form is the best option.
When considering upper body muscles, the push-up is another terrific exercise. However, focusing again on form will allow for maximum results. Children should bend the elbows on the “down” portion of the push-up only until they reach about a 90° angle. There is no need to go all the way to the floor! This also helps prevent undue stress and strain on the joints and ligaments. Having them perform push-ups in this fashion beginning with hands on a wall, then countertop, stationary bench, and finally on the floor will make the task sequentially harder without sacrificing form. These options also prevent undue knee pain from doing floor push-ups on their knees rather than on the balls of the feet. Expected results by age and gender for each FitnessGram® exercise may be found for free at https://www.pyfp.org/doc/fitnessgram/fg-09-interpreting.pdf.
The results from the body composition portion of the study were published in 2018 (Kabiri, Mitchell, Brewer, & Ortiz, 2018). Childhood obesity has been a popular conversation in the recent past. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that increased fat in children has been linked to increased risk of disease (high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, etc.) as well as their social and psychological health. However, in this article we also restate the link between body composition and academic performance as well. This link to academic performance includes both standardized and cognitive test scores in elementary school children.
In our research, we found that all 145 homeschool children on average were lean (low body mass index and percent body fat) but what fat they did have tended to be around their bellies. Body mass index is a simple ratio of a child’s weight and height but does not distinguish between mass (“weight”) from fat (body fat) and fat-free tissue (bones, muscles, water, etc.). Only 11.2% of the homeschoolers were overweight or obese by their body mass index. Unlike body mass index, assessing percent body fat does allow for this distinction. Overall, only 19.6% were in the unhealthy overfat or obese categories. While ideally all children would be classified as healthy, this is a relatively small percentage compared to the entire childhood population and good news in general.
However, when we look specifically at abdominal or visceral fat, almost half (49.7%) of the homeschool population was classified as unhealthy. Abdominal or visceral fat is also known as “belly fat” and has a much stronger relationship to heart and other disease risk than other types of body fat. This increase in unhealthy belly fat was also noted to be significantly more common in the younger (aged 5-8 years) homeschoolers compared to the older (aged 9-11 years). Normal increases in body fat are expected prior to growth spurts. However, these findings went beyond the expected increases seen with normal growth. Healthy or unhealthy classifications were based upon normal age and gender specific data from a large sample of American youth who would also be experiencing the same changes in height and weight with normal maturation (Katzmarzyk, 2004).
Opportunities for Improvement
Perhaps you have heard of the term “skinny fat”. This term refers to people who might be in the acceptable weight range but still have a relatively high percentage of body fat due to a lack of significant weight from bone and muscle mass. In other words, they look thin and have a good body mass index but are still at risk for heart disease since a good portion of their weight comes from fat rather than bone or muscle. For this reason, it is important to go beyond watching your child’s weight on the scale and even beyond their body mass index. Measuring waist circumference is quick and easy way to measure the amount of belly fat that is of primary concern for health risk. This can be done by any healthcare professional or even at home. Normal cut-off scores for each age and gender can be found at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/114/2/e198.long.
If your child needs to trim down, try a combination of limiting extra calories (sodas, sugary snacks, fast food, etc.) and increasing physical activity. Be sure to discuss any body composition assessment results and intended changes with your child’s regular physician or healthcare provider first. By making changes early in life, children as less likely to struggle with ongoing problems with body fat as adults.
One of the other outcomes we were curious about for children educated outside of the traditional public school system was the development of normal motor (movement) skills. Gross (large or whole body movements) and fine (smaller or wrist/hand/finger movements) motor skills are building blocks for more advanced movements needed for sports and other physical activities later in life. Gross motor skills include things like walking, skipping, and jumping while fine motor skills include things like writing, buttoning a coat, and molding clay or putty.
Since motor skills in elementary school children have been linked to physical activity, cardiorespiratory fitness, sports participation, injury risk, and even academic achievement, we felt it important to assess them in homeschool children as well. Our findings were published in 2016 and 2017 (Kabiri, 2016; Kabiri, Mitchell, Brewer, & Ortiz, 2017b).Because most fundamental motor skills are learned early in life, we only tested children aged 8 and younger for this portion of the study resulting in a sample of 73 homeschool children. Their results were compared to expected overall motor skill scores for other children their age and gender as well as compared to public school children on specific motor skill tasks.
Overall, we found that homeschool children demonstrated average motor skill proficiency for their age/gender. This means that most of them had overall score within the expected range. However, we noticed that homeschool children who participated in organized sports (over 2.5 hours/week) had significantly better motor skills than those who did not. When considering independent tasks, we found that compared to their public school peers, homeschool children scored significantly less on 2 of 3 fine motor tasks but significantly more on 1 of 3 gross motor tasks. When taken together, this seems to imply that the overall “average” rating for motor skill proficiency in homeschool children may be masking both a deficit in fine motor skills as well as an advantage in gross motor skills.
Opportunities for Improvement
In addition to the advantage seen with participating in 2.5 hours or more of organized sports or physical activities a week, other opportunities can be provided to improve motor skill development. Encouraging children to play in parks (swinging, slides, climbing, balancing, jumping, etc.) is a terrific way to develop gross motor skills. Playing games like jumping rope, hopscotch, sports, and riding a tricycle/scooter/bike with them in a supportive environment are also excellent.
However, as seen in our study, fine motor skills seemed to be lagging among the homeschool population. To address this deficit more specifically, practice doing mazes and puzzles with your younger children (5-8 years of age). Handwriting and tracing tasks also help develop fine motor skills. Molding modeling clay or putty along with folding paper to make airplanes or paper dolls are other terrific ideas to encourage fine motor development. Cutting with age appropriate safety scissors through progressively thicker paper, poster board, and card board also build up hand and finger muscles. Coloring, both abstract and within preset lines, is also an excellent way to encourage fine motor skill proficiency.
TO SUMMARIZE, THIS first part of the FAITH Study found elementary aged homeschool students to have good cardiorespiratory (aerobic) fitness, body mass index, percent body fat, and overall motor skill proficiency. We also showed room for improvement in muscular fitness (abdominal and upper body), waist or belly fat, and fine motor skills within this population.
Fitness Assessment in the Homeschooled: The F.A.I.T.H. Study – Part II
After graduation, I decided to continue my exploration of health-related fitness in the homeschool population by expanding the age range to include adolescents. In 2017, I began collecting data on similar outcomes among 66 homeschooled adolescents aged 12-17 years. Once again, the population was predominantly white, non-Hispanic and nonpoor, consistent with the general American homeschool population (Redford, Battle, & Bielick, 2017). In general, data analysis for Part II is still in process with numerous articles planned for publication beginning in 2019. However, data from Part I and Part II were recently combined to explore the effect of organized sports and physical activity participation on fitness.
Organized Sports and Physical Activities
This study recently made national news headlines claiming that homeschool children were not meeting fitness goals. However, more closer examination of the full news release (Rice News) tells a more complete story. The appeal of the homeschool population is in the fact that there is no outside influence of public school physical education classes or physical activity initiatives to mask the effect of sports participation on fitness. Parents were asked if their student paid to participate in organized sports or activities and the average number of hours per week. We then compared FitnessGram® test results for those who participated in organized sports or activities to those who did not.
Overall, only 20% of the homeschool population received healthy classification on all three portions of the FitnessGram® (cardiorespiratory fitness, abdominal, and upper body strength and endurance). However, we noted that paying for your child to participate in organized sports or physical activities alone did not significantly improve their chances of performing well on the fitness test. Likewise, more hours of participation per week was unrelated to improved cardiorespiratory fitness (Kabiri, Rodriguez, Perkins-Ball, & Diep, 2019). This was not intended imply that homeschool children were unfit nor to discourage participation, but rather that only paying to participate in organized sports or activities is not enough to significantly improve fitness.
Opportunities for Improvement
The take away from this study is that paying for sports or other activities does not mean your child is getting enough activity to improve their fitness. The real improvement in fitness is seen with moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, not physical activity alone. Your student needs to be moving in a manner that makes them sweat and/or breath harder for at least 60 minutes a day. Obviously, there is a wide range of activity level to be found in sports classes and on teams. Participating in an elite or competitive sports league might be enough to meet the fitness requirements while doing an introduction to sports skills class might not.
Rather than depending on enrolling your child in a sport or activity to meet their fitness requirements alone, observe a class. If you are paying for the instructor or coach to spend 20-30 minutes of a 50-minute class to explain the rules and keep them on task, you are not getting your child’s fitness needs met. Encouraging them to run and play at home and with friends (or better yet with you!) can help make up for that deficit in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
IT ONLY TAKES an hour a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity to make a big impact on health. As a mom myself, I know it can also double as time to burn off extra energy and noise (hopefully outside)! Even if participation in organized sports is not enough to improve fitness, these teams and classes also help build motor and social skills that may still be worth the time and investment. As both a parent and an educator, only you can decide what is best for your child. However, daily devotion to healthy habits, including physical activity, will pay a lifetime of dividends for you, your child, and generations to come.
Cardel, Michelle, Willig, Amanda L., Dulin‐Keita, Akilah, Casazza, Krista, Cherrington, Andrea, Gunnarsdottir, Thrudur, & Fernández, Jose R. (2014). Home‐schooled children are thinner, leaner, and report better diets relative to traditionally schooled children. Obesity, 22(2), 497-503.
Kabiri, Laura. (2016). Fitness assessment in the homeschooled: The FAITH study (Doctoral dissertation).
Kabiri, Laura S., Mitchell, Katy, Brewer, Wayne, & Ortiz, Alex. (2017a). Muscular and cardiorespiratory fitness in homeschool versus public school children. Pediatric Exercise Science, 29(3), 371-376.
Kabiri, Laura S., Mitchell, Katy, Brewer, Wayne, & Ortiz, Alex. (2017b). Motor Skill Proficiency Among Homeschooled Children. Journal of Motor Learning and Development, 5(2), 336-345.
Kabiri, Laura S., Mitchell, Katy, Brewer, Wayne, & Ortiz, Alex. (2018). How Healthy Is Homeschool? An Analysis of Body Composition and Cardiovascular Disease Risk. Journal of School Health, 88(2), 132-138.
Kabiri Laura S., Rodriguez, Augusto X., Perkins-Ball, Amanda M., & Diep, Cassandra S. (2019) Organized Sports and Physical Activities as Sole Influencers of Fitness: TheHomeschool Population. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology, 4(1),13.
Katzmarzyk, Peter T., Srinivasan, Sathanur R., Chen, Wei, Malina, Robert M., Bouchard, Claude, & Berenson, Gerald S. (2004). Body mass index, waist circumference, and clustering of cardiovascular disease risk factors in a biracial sample of children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 114(2), e198-e205.
Long, Douglas E., Gaetke, Lisa M., Perry, Stephen D., Abel, Mark G., & Clasey, Jody L. (2010). The assessment of physical activity and nutrition in home schooled versus public schooled children. Pediatric Exercise Science, 22(1), 44-59.
Redford, Jeremy, Battle, Danielle, and Bielick, Stacey. (2017). Homeschooling in the United States: 2012 (NCES 2016-096REV). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.
Welk, Gregory J., Schaben, Jodee A., & Shelley, Mack. (2004). Physical Activity and Physical Fitness in Children Schooled at Home and in Public Schools. Pediatric Exercise Science, 16(4), 310-323.
Note: Laura Kabiri is a full-time lecturer in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University. She is also a full-time wife and mother of twin boys. For more details or interest in future studies, please contact Laura Kabiri at email@example.com or visit her website at https://kabiri.rice.edu.
1. The “Perspectives – News and Comments” section of this journal consists of articles that have not undergone peer review. ¯HSR¯
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