You’ve heard the news: Today’s children are declining in health and gaining more weight than ever before. Childhood obesity rates have tripled within the last 30 years. Currently, one child in four is overweight, and up to 80 percent of obese youth continue this trend into adulthood. Although many factors influence a child’s weight, studies show that a child’s activity level has a greater effect on her weight than food consumption.
What’s happening to our children? Today’s children are more sedentary than ever with the widespread availability of television, DVDs, computers, and video games. As reported last month in the San Diego Union Tribune, “by the time children reach 15 years of age, they get less than 50 percent of the recommended amount of daily activity of 60 minutes per day. Researchers found that by age 15, physical activity had dropped to only 49 minutes per day during the week and 35 minutes on weekends.”
The current trend of inactivity and the associated epidemic of obesity is driven by multiple factors such as inadequate physical education opportunities in school, reduction of designated open spaces, lack of recreation facilities, lack of active role models and lack of direction from parents and guardians to encourage activity over sedentary pursuits. All of these factors add up to the fact that childhood obesity is now a major national medical concern.
Activity is the Key
Did you know that on average Americans spend about 60 percent of their waking time sitting? It’s true. Whether it’s watching TV, surfing the net or sitting in our cars, we expend very little energy these days. Sadly, we can’t even depend on the schools to provide our children with physical activity. According to recent reports, most children do not have the opportunity to meet the daily recommendation to engage in moderate to vigorous activity in school sponsored physical education classes (PE) for at least one or more hours during the school day. What’s worse, a growing number of schools are cutting physical education classes from their curriculum all together.
Kids at Risk of Decreased Physical Activity
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1988–1994) reported that 26 percent of American children watched at least four hours of television per day, and the more hours that the children watched, the greater their BMI (Body Mass Index), especially when compared to those children who watched less than two hours of television per day. The bottom line: the more hours spent watching television, the fatter the child. But, getting kids off the couch and outside to play does take some planning.
Be a Role Model
According to recent studies, a child who grows up with at least one obese parent has a 79 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese. Regrettably, 60 percent of American adults are either overweight or obese. It’s understandable that hectic work schedules and family commitments make it difficult to plan family-focused activities, but given the alternative, is there really a choice? My advice? Ditch the Blackberry and grab the ball for some family fun of playing catch or go for a walk after dinner. Soon, exercise and physical activity will become a fun family routine.
Promoting Physical Activity at Home
The best place to start promoting physical health is at home and it must start with the parents. For children, the goal of getting exercise should be fun while exploring new places, playing games and riding their bikes—anything that gets their bodies moving.
Infants and Toddlers
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children younger than 2 years should not watch any television. Infants and toddlers should also be allowed unstructured exploration of the outdoors while under the supervision of a responsible adult. Such activities include walking in the neighborhood, unorganized free play outdoors and exploring a park or zoo.
Preschool-aged Children (4–6 Years)
Preschool-aged children should take part in unorganized play that encourages fun, exploration and experimentation. Appropriate activities might include running, swimming, tumbling, throwing and catching. Preschoolers should also begin walking tolerable distances supervised by family members. In addition, parents should reduce sedentary transportation by car and stroller and limit television and/or DVD watching to less than two hours per day.
Elementary School–aged Children (6–9 Years)
In this age group, children improve their motor skills, visual tracking and balance by walking, dancing, jumping rope or participation in organized sports such as soccer or baseball. However, parents should focus on enjoyment rather than competition, since children in this age group have a limited ability to learn team strategy.
Middle School-aged Children (10–12 Years)
At this age, physical activities that focus on enjoyment with family members and friends should be encouraged. Middle school-aged children are better able to process verbal instruction and integrate information from multiple sources, which means that participation in sporting events like football, basketball or ice hockey is a good option. Running events and weight training may also be initiated, provided the program is well supervised.
Adolescents are highly social and influenced by their peers. Identifying activities that are of interest to the adolescent, especially those that are fun and include friends, is crucial for long-term participation. Physical activities may include dance, yoga, running, skateboarding, cycling, and competitive and noncompetitive sports.
Making physical activity as fun and exciting as video games can be a difficult challenge. But a little planning, encouragement and patience will result in a lifelong love of physical activity with benefits that outweigh achieving the top score for “Super Mario”! Plus, you’ll find that your children are in better health and in better spirits, and you just might find that you and your children enjoy it more than you thought
Janet Little is a Certified Nutritionist with Henry’s Farmers Markets.