At one time, kids played outdoor games that kept their bodies fit and active. They rode bikes and explored the neighborhood and nearby parks on foot. Kids would return home after a long day of outdoor play, tired but happy. Mentally and physically, they were rejuvenated.
These days, kids and teens are more likely to park in front of the television after school or use technology. What’s more, a new study shows that kids and adolescents are even less active than we might have imagined – and it doesn’t get better when they enter the adolescent and teen years. How sedentary are today’s adolescents and teens? As inactive as their grandparents! This is why childhood inactivity is now a major health concern.
The Surprising Level of Childhood Inactivity Among Teens and Adolescents
This study, carried out by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, made some alarming observations. According to the study, by the time teens reach the age of 19, they’re as active, on average, as a 60-year-old individual. The only bright spot in the study was that the study showed a bump up in activity after the age of 20 but activity levels again slowly declined again after the age of 35.
To make these observations, researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The survey included 12,529 healthy individuals, made up of children, adolescents, young adults, midlife adults, and older adults. Activity levels were tracked with activity trackers. Using the data gained from the trackers, researchers calculated how much activity the participants got and how intense the movements they did throughout the day were
The researchers also found that men had higher levels of physical activity than females, although their activity level dropped off sharply during midlife, so much so that by age 60, women were more active than the men. However, men were more likely to engage in high-intensity exercise compared to women.
The Growing Problem of Childhood Inactivity
The growing lack of physical activity among kids, teens, and adolescents is concerning to health care officials as well. According to Sports Review, kids expend 400% less energy than kids did 40 years ago. In fact, kids and adolescents spend an average of 5 hours per day watching television and playing video games. Not surprisingly, the rate of childhood and teen obesity has been rising as well.
Although the rate of obesity has stabilized over the past few years, around one-third of kids between the age of 10 and 17 are obese or overweight and almost 14% of high school teens are obese based on established standards.
Yet, obesity isn’t the only issue. Physicians now see children with health problems they once saw only in adults, such as hypertension, coronary artery disease, fatty liver disease, and type 2 diabetes. What’s more, parents often don’t acknowledge that an obese child’s weight is a problem. In fact, some fail to recognize that their child is overweight or obese at all, despite being told that they are by a health care professional.
Unfortunately, lack of awareness doesn’t prevent the complications that go along with obesity – a 2 to 3 times higher risk of hypertension and a reduction in insulin sensitivity, a problem you see in adults with metabolic syndrome. Kids (and adults) who develop metabolic syndrome are at high risk for type 2 diabetes.
Obesity is also linked with lipid abnormalities, including an increase in triglycerides, a type of blood fat that goes up in people with metabolic syndrome. With an increase in triglyceride, a reduction in insulin sensitivity, excessive calories and not enough exercise, some kids go on to develop non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a silent disease that progresses to liver damage in a small percentage of people. Unfortunately, you don’t know who will progress and who won’t. Some officials describe non-alcoholic fatty liver disease as an impending tsunami and we’re now seeing this health problem in kids.
Obesity and Childhood Inactivity Can Have Consequences Later in Life
Also disturbing is the fact that obesity and lack of physical activity set the stage for health problems during adulthood. Even if a child breezes through childhood obese but healthy, they’re not necessarily off the hook. For one, obese children are more likely to be overweight or obese adults. Plus, a study showed that kids who are overweight or obese at age 13 have a higher risk of stroke during adulthood.
Being overweight or obese during childhood is also linked with a higher risk of colon cancer. Sadly, we’re now seeing a rise in colon and rectal cancer cases in people under the age of 50. One potential reason is the growing rate of obesity and lack of physical activity. Being physically active and staying a healthy body weight offer some protection against colorectal cancer.
How to Stop Childhood Inactivity and Get Kids to Be More Active
Parents have a responsibility to get kids off the couch because their current and future health depends upon it. The earlier kids realize the importance of physical activity, the greater the chance they’ll adopt healthy habits that will follow them into adulthood. One way to do that is to be physically active as a family. Walks, bike rides, hikes, canoeing, are all ways that a family can exercise together. Everyone wins!
Help your kids find a sport or physical activity they enjoy early in life. Expose them to lots of experiences that get them off the couch and boost their heart rate. Encourage them to pick a sport and master it, whether it be tennis, swimming, or running. They don’t have to play sports to get a workout. Kids and teens that enjoy nature can go on nature walks and hikes to be more active. Every bit of movement counts.
Finally, limit screen time, whether it be iPhone, iPad, computer, or television. When kids sit on the couch, they’re also more likely to snack. Also, make sure you’re setting a good example. Kids and teens who see their parents sitting most of the time are likely to follow suit.
The Bottom Line
Childhood inactivity is now a public health hazard. Motivate your kids to put away technology and get off the couch. Their future health depends on it.
Science Daily. “19-year-olds as sedentary as 60-year-olds, study suggests”
Sports Science Review. The Journal of National Institute for Sports Research. Vol. 21. Issues 3-4. August, 2012.
StateofObesity.org. “The State of Childhood Obesity”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Childhood Obesity Facts”
UC Davis Health. “Adult diseases and children”
Science News for Students. “Adult diseases may be linked to childhood weight”
WebMD. “Kid Fitness: When Your Child Won’t Exercise”
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