New Zealand's Healthiest Schools Challenge, devised by newly joined insurance companies, AIA and Sovereign, encourages primary school children to count their steps with the help of a pedometer. Other types of activity can be logged as well, which are then entered into a digital programme allowing them to "travel" around the world with Kiwi sports legends Cory Jane and Gemma McCaw, while learning health and wellness tips along the way.
The companies' interest in wellbeing stems from their compilation of the AIA Healthy Living Index, highlighting health trends and offering advice on improvement – and they are hoping to inspire 50,000 schoolchildren throughout New Zealand in term four. Schools can register at www.healthiestschools.co.nz.
"Our shared vision is to make New Zealand one of the healthiest and best-protected nations in the world. The Healthiest Schools initiative is vital to achieving that, given that healthy habits developed before a child turns 10 are far more likely to stick," says Nick Stanhope, NZ CEO of AIA/Sovereign.
He's referring to modern research showing those who exercise in their youth generally become healthier adults – as highlighted by a 2016 Finnish study which demonstrated that those who get into the habit of exercising when aged between three and nine are more likely to be active as adults.
Ground-breaking research by New Zealand scientists at the University of Auckland's Liggins Institute has underlined that – finding that children getting plenty of exercise can combat the long-term "programming" effects of a high-fat diet. The 2017 study showed bone retains a memory of exercise's health effects long after that exercise has ceased, which continues to change the way the body metabolises a high-fat diet.
The problem is many of our kids just aren't moving as much as they should, with one study of overweight and obese youngsters in Taranaki showing they do far less than the recommended hour of moderate to vigorous activity every day. Around a third admitted they spend more than three hours a day watching TV or other screens.
Childhood exercise expert Scott Duncan applauds any efforts that inspire kids to move more:
"Initiatives like this are great for getting children motivated to be active," says Duncan, an associate professor at AUT's School of Sport and Recreation.
"Societal changes, especially in the last 10 years, have had a huge impact on children. They are spending way more time looking at technology and screens and way less outside roaming around and participating in play that's challenging and physical."
Duncan says we need to be aware of the benefits exercise gives kids now and later on in life – and take on the responsibility of keeping them as active as possible: "The younger they start the better, but really young children can't just randomly do it themselves. It should be family habit."
The problem isn't always children – Duncan supervised a PhD study in 2015 showing kids in New Zealand are 50 per cent less likely to roam independently than their parents because they are often worried about safety, meaning the healthy benefits of free play and exercise are often lost.
New Zealand's Healthiest School Challenge sees a class, once accepted as participants, given free pedometers. They then create an avatar of themselves on the website or app and enter in the steps (or other types of activity) they complete in real life, over the six week challenge period, which takes place in Term Four.
This activity enables a class to move around an online global course, viewing fun animations of their avatars having adventures and interacting with the avatars of hockey legend Gemma McCaw and rugby legend Cory Jane, ambassadors for the challenge.
Along the way, they can answer questions about the healthy living messages they've been given by Gemma and Cory, and go in a draw to win a range of prizes, including a share of $50,000 worth of AIA and Sovereign sports grants for their school and one of five trips to Sydney for a skills session with a world-famous soccer star.
Mums and dads can also join a parents' team, and take part in the challenge, helping their kids to improve the chances of their school winning a sports grant.
Stanhope says he hopes New Zealand's Healthiest Schools Challenge will excite school kids to develop behaviours that will continue to benefit them well beyond the Healthiest Schools Challenge.
"We hope the families of participants will encourage their children to think more about their health and wellbeing, and form healthy habits they may stick with for the rest of their lives. Movement is only part of the holistic view of health and wellness, and we're really passionate about helping to improve the health of Kiwi kids."