America's Kids are at Increased Health Risk from Lack of Exercise
As children get older, many become sluggish, sedentary, and overweight. That's the bad news. The good news is that parents can make a difference--if they tap into what their children really like.
Ask any parent and they'll tell you that their wiggly-squiggly wee one is constantly in motion--chasing birds, scrambling up hills, and kicking balls. But it's become a sad fact of American life that many of these frisky small fries wind up out of shape and overweight by the time they reach their teens.
The latest statistics are all too familiar: recent studies indicate that 26 percent of public school children and 19 percent of private school children are obese--the medical term of being significantly overweight--which is a considerable increase over their parents' generation.
This fact is of no surprise when your consider that only 25% of our nation's high school students participate in physical education (PE) classes, according to the Surgeon General's "Healthy People 2000" update. American teenagers work up a sweat far less often than their peers in many other developed countries and far less than their parents' generation.
To change this dismal state of affairs, it is important that children--boys and girls--develop, by the time they are ten years old, a good broad base of fundamental physical skills, ones that will give them access for the rest of their lives to sports, fitness activities, and the pleasures of physical movement.
As children enter their early teen years, it becomes a critical time to keep kids' interest in physical activity from fading. The right interventions during adolescence can give kids the best chance of developing an exercise habit that will stick with them for life.
Some of the reasons energetic adolescents become sluggish teens are familiar to anyone who's struggled to make exercise an everyday practice. Kids live in the same world we do. They have the same attractive sedentary pursuits--TV, video games, and the Internet--staring them in the face. Unfortunately, children face a host of obstacles all their own, including limited PE classes, cutbacks in school recesses, and a lack of safe places in which to play.
As with adults, these are only excuses and parents can do something about this problem. First, it is important to know what can be controlled and what cannot. Parents should make an effort to change the focus of family gatherings from eating to activities that involve some exercise. They also should limit the amount of junk food that comes into the house. Just as they set rules on TV watching or computer use, it's appropriate for parents to decide what foods will be available in the house and to set limits on serving sizes for rich foods or snacks.
For kids of all ages, just getting rid of these barriers may not be enough. There are often differences in students' size, strength, and skills. Kids who aren't highly athletic can often get turned off about sports. It is important for a parent to remember that children develop physically at different stages and that chronological age is just a general and often inexact marker of development.
Parents can make a difference. It's vital that parents help their children find an activity they like--and help them keep up with it. The point is, you don’t want to push a child to do any more than her or she is capable of, or wants to do, but neither do you want to hold an enthusiastic child back. The key here is letting the child choose. If the child wants to take a karate or tennis class, it's the parents' responsibility to help him find the class, or drive him there, or do whatever it takes to make that happen. In fact, children whose parents transport them back and forth are the most likely to stick with their sports.
Another important lifestyle change is to include family fitness events. The parent’s goal here is to make fitness a fun, normal, and necessary part of your family’s life. Your goal as a parent is to have a weekly exercise program that is a pleasurable family routine that is as enjoyable and regular as the evening meal.
It is also recommended is to lead by example. Show your children you are physically active by leading an active lifestyle--walk, stretch, play tennis, swim, roller blade, bike. Your children will learn that exercise is a normal activity.
When teenagers start high school, they run up against a more adult impediment to exercise: lack of time. When after-school activities, jobs, and socializing all become increasingly important, a fitness routine can easily fall by the wayside. At this stage, it's crucial for parents to help adolescents find activities they can fit into their schedules--and encourage them to carve out the time to do them. Non-competitive activities--salsa dancing or kayaking, perhaps--are likely to be attractive because they can be enjoyed with peers of all fitness levels.
Opportunity is the critical element here. If you give kids an opportunity to be active and help them find something that clicks, then they stand a much better chance of making exercise a lifelong habit.
In other words, those lively little ones are not doomed to morph into lethargic teens. Encouraging children of all ages to try an activity--whether it's hurling a football, hiking a tranquil mountain trail, or biking in the street with a group of friends--can make all the difference.