It’s no secret that childhood obesity is on the rise. In fact, one in five kids currently meet the criteria for obesity and the percentage is expected to grow. One reason for the rise in obesity, as experts point out, is that children are less physically active these days. At one time, kids played games in the great outdoors that kept their bodies moving. They rode bikes and frolicked in the woods. But, these days, they’re more likely to entertain themselves with an electronic device or by spending hours in front of a television screen. This has implications not only for the prevention of obesity but the physical fitness of kids as well.
We know as adults that if we don’t move our bodies, we become less fit. Children, too, need to challenge their cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. But, too many aren’t. If kids are inactive during childhood, what are the chances that they’ll change their ways as adults? You might also wonder how fit or unfit the kids of today actually are and how significantly physical fitness levels have declined.
Researchers at Essex University looked at the fitness levels of kids in 2008 and compared them to 1998. To make the comparison, they challenged 300 kids to do a 20-meter shuttle run and contrasted the results to those obtained in 1998. They didn’t compare favorably. Disturbingly, a 10-year-old in 1998, on average, outran 95% of the kids they tested in 2008. Just as distressing is the fact that it takes children today 90 additional seconds to run a mile compared to children 30 years ago.
There’s other bad news. The same children showed a decline in arm strength. Kids in 1998, on average, had 26% greater arm strength and a 7% stronger hand grip. Grip strength is particularly important as some studies link a weak hand grip with earlier mortality. The number of sit-ups the average child can do also dropped by 27.1%. Overall, there’s been a significant decline in the physical fitness of kids and there’s no sign that this trend is shifting.
Why We Should Be Concerned About the Physical Fitness of Kids
Not only are kids less physically capable these days, but the lack of physical activity and strength is also a red flag for future health problems. In a study published in Diabetes Care, researchers linked a decline in physical fitness in children with an increased risk of insulin resistance and obesity. As you know, insulin resistance is a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
Plus, the reason kids have less stamina and strength is that they’re not as physically active as children decades ago. It’s high-impact activity, like running and jumping, that helps kids build strong bones that they carry into adulthood. It’s difficult to build additional bone once you reach adulthood, so it’s important that kids lay down the foundation early for preventing osteoporosis, as you don’t get a second chance!
It’s not just physical health that suffers when kids are too sedentary, so does a child’s mental well-being. Research from the Journal of Pediatrics shows that kids that are physically fit get better grades and achieve more academically. In fact, the physical fitness of kids impacts academic achievement more than body weight. Plus, the physical fitness of kids and the sports they play build self-esteem and confidence that helps a child in all aspects of daily life.
How Much Exercise Do Kids Need?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that kids over the age of 6 get an hour of moderate to high-intensity exercise daily. This means on a scale of 1 to 10, the exercise they engage in should be at least a 5 on the intensity scale. Plus, according to the CDC, children need aerobic exercise for cardiovascular health, high-impact exercise for bone health, and strength training. They even recommend that kids do push-ups to build strength.
As you might expect, most kids are NOT meeting these guidelines. In fact, only about 1 in 4 are. That’s not good news! It suggests that kids of the future may increasingly suffer from diseases we once saw mainly in adults, like type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, about 3,700 kids and teens develop type 2 diabetes every year in the United States. This was a health condition that was once almost unheard of in youth. Obesity and low levels of physical activity are the biggest reasons we’re seeing diseases once reserved for adults in kids. Physical activity is important for weight control and obesity prevention, but it also improves how cells respond to insulin. That’s important for the prevention of type 2 diabetes.
The Bottom Line
Kids suffer in many ways from lack of physical activity. Being sedentary as a child carries a higher risk of adult health problems and increases the odds that being sedentary will become an ingrained habit. Physical fitness of kids is an essential part of healthy development at all stages of life.
How can you help your own kids be more active? Get them involved in sports early, encourage them to spend time outdoors, and limit screen time. Plan active outings together as a family, such as hiking or bike riding. Hiking has the advantage of giving kids a greater appreciation of nature and being outdoors. Encourage them to make active friends too! A study published in Live Science showed that children tend to be more active when they have physically active friends.
Overall, kids are less physically fit than in the past, but you can help your own kids buck the trend by encouraging them to stay healthy and active.
Weiler R, Allardyce S, Whyte GP, et al Is the lack of physical activity strategy for children complicit mass child neglect? Br J Sports Med 2014;48:1010-1013.
The Guardian. “Children growing weaker as computers replace outdoor activity”
BBC News. “Child fitness levels ‘declining even in affluent areas”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Childhood Obesity Facts”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “How much physical activity do children need?”
World Health Organization. “Physical Activity and Young People”
Live Science. “Kids Boost Activity Level When Around Active Friends”