Heart rate research the latest indicator of the power of AEL’s ECEC physical literacy program
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Heart rate research the latest indicator of the power of AEL’s ECEC physical literacy program

by Jason Roberts

March 08, 2022

Recent developments in a pioneering study by researchers at the University of Canberra Research Institute for Sports and Exercise (UCRISE), first reported by The Sector in 2021, have shown that heart rate variability (HRV) can be an important marker of children’s future health and wellbeing. 


From its establishment the Active Early Learning (AEL) program has explored how the implementation of physical literacy programs in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings leads to significant jumps in children’s activity levels with a range of positive benefits, both physical and psychological, observed.  


“There have been many attempts to increase physical activity in early childhood settings. This was the first time we have seen such a significant and meaningful increase, in the preschool group, in published literature,” Lead author Dr Rohan Telford, a Senior Research Fellow at UCRISE said


“By demonstrating a link between physical literacy and cognitive development via the application of a structured physical literacy program in ECEC settings we now have the means to boost overall development in young children to better prepare them for school and beyond,” fellow researcher Professor Dick Telford AM added,


Findings from the research program, which was conducted in partnership with the Australian College of Physical Literacy were recently published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, outlining how the c delivery of the AEL program to three and four year olds attending early learning settings was coordinated. 


The unique system is customised for each service and is delivered using a peer facilitated coaching model that helps educators integrate physical activity into their daily routines and existing curriculums for the benefit of the children. 


“It may sound simple, but this approach is very different to what is happening now in most schools and early childhood education centres,” Professor Telford said.


Heart rate variability, an added layer of research and insight


More recently, an additional layer of research into the impacts of the AEL program has focused on a particular aspect of physiology know as heart rate variability (HRV) and to what degree it is impacted by increasing the physical activity levels of young children and how it can be used to provide indications of future health and well being vulnerabilities. 


What is heart rate variability and why is it important?


Heart rate variability is measured as the variation in the time between each heartbeat.  A low variation is associated with less healthy outcomes and high variations are associated with better health outcomes. 


“Heart rate variability is actually controlled by a part of our nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which works to regulate our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, digestion and other tasks but importantly it is also associated with our “fight or flight”, stress recovery and relaxation responses,” Dr Andrew McKune explained. 


“Where the time between heart beats is lower and less variable at rest, evidence points to an increased incidence of imbalance in the ANS reflecting a greater risk that “fight or flight” responses are triggered by the body.”


“By extension having higher HRV rates signals a person has a higher resilience to physical and emotional stress which in turn points to better medium and long term health and well being outcomes.” 


It is this dynamic that raises the importance of identifying low HRV as early as possible.


How was it measured as part of the AEL program and what were the conclusions?


Dr McKune and his team worked with the University of Canberra and Australian College of Physical Literacy who administer the AEL program in ECEC centres to measure the HRV of a group of three and four year olds enrolled in the program over the course of a six month period. 


The study found that children participating in the six month AEL program presented with significantly higher levels of resting HRV, and that these higher levels remained after controlling for age, sex, physical activity, BMI and early learning centre.


“From a clinical perspective within adult populations, high HRV is associated with decreased risk of atherosclerosis, type II diabetes, myocardial infarction, depression, anxiety as well as improved executive function, emotional/social regulation and overall psychophysiological health,” Dr McKune said,


“As such, the result of increased HRV may reflect that children who received the novel AEL curriculum have a decreased “prognosis” of poor health outcomes as compared with the control group which is very encouraging.”


Andrew Smith, CEO of ACPL said “It is becoming increasingly clear that the benefits of physical literacy programs deployed in ECEC settings not only enhances near term physical and psychological benefits for children but also safeguards them from a prognosis of poor health outcomes in the future.”


“We are very passionate about the importance of the AEL program in ECEC settings and are encouraged and excited about what this new study reveals about the value of the program.”


To learn more about AEL, and how it is implemented in service, please see here


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