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Why the Physical Inactivity of Youth Is a Growing Problem

Aug 24, 2012




By Sheri Colberg, PhD


How much exercise are kids actually getting nowadays? Not nearly enough!



Adults have not been the ideal role models, though, given that the new millennium began with more than 60 percent of all American adults not being regularly physically active, and a quarter of them not exercising at all in spite of its widely broadcast health benefits. Adults may unconsciously be even more of the problem than being a poor role model. For instance, how many times have you unthinkingly strapped your infant, toddler, or preschooler into his or her stroller, effectively trapping your child into a sedentary state for your own convenience or to save time?

Such physical restraint of children by adults generally continues as they grow older as well, manifesting whenever you attempt to control their behavior by making them sit, be it in school, in the car, or in your home. In fact, lack of physical activity — particularly vigorous exercise — is likely the most significant contributor to childhood obesity. Combined with too much time being spent on sedentary behaviors like computer games and television watching, insufficient exercise may equal or exceed diet quality as a contributor to weight gain, particularly among teens.

According to 2011 data reported by the CDC, only 29 percent of all high school-aged kids nationwide can be classified as "physically active," meaning that they had participated in 60 minutes or more of moderate or vigorous physical activity daily (as recommended) during the week before they were surveyed. Girls fared worse, with only 18.5 percent of them being active while 38.3 percent of boys were. What’s more, 14 percent of high school students had not participated in 60 or more minutes of any kind of physical activity on any day during the 7 days before the survey, although 77 percent of younger children (ages nine to thirteen) participated in free-time physical activity during the previous 7 days.

Only 31 percent of kids in grades 9 through 12 engage in daily physical education classes at school: 41 percent of 9th graders, but only 24 percent of 12th-grade students. The removal of consistent physical education classes from many school curricula to focus on better student performance on government-mandated standards of learning (SOL) in academic subjects is occurring at the worst possible time — when inexpensive and nutritionally poor calories are available to our youth in ever-increasing portions. Many schools now offer very limited PE classes (once or twice a week rather than daily), or even none at all. The only glimmer of hope is that some schools are beginning to implement the "new" PE, that is, participation in a wide variety of physical activities (including rock climbing) rather than competition to be more inclusive of kids of all sizes.

Nevertheless, our kids’ overall level of inactivity has escalated even more dramatically now that they are not only less active in school, but are also replacing their physically active leisure-time pursuits with sedentary ones like surfing the Web, playing computer and other video games, and watching countless hours of television (with hundreds of channels available). Fewer kids, on the whole, are participating in after-school sports and other physically active extracurricular pursuits.

Although a lot of sitting around is best avoided, television watching appears to be especially detrimental because your calorie expenditure is even lower during this than other sit-down activities, such as playing board games or reading. Many pediatricians are now recommending that children be restricted from spending more than one to two hours a day using TVs and computers combined (although extra time on the computer may be allowed for homework). Kids who watch a lot of TV are also more likely to have bad eating habits, such as munching on unhealthy, high-calorie snacks, likely driven by the many junk food commercials targeting youth. In fact, the amount of TV watched during childhood is directly associated with the risk of high cholesterol, diabetes, poor physical fitness, smoking, and obesity in adulthood.

The latest recommendations for youth of all ages are that they should participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Of course, engaging in even more may offer additional benefits, but only up to a point. Excessive exercise (such as ninety minutes or more daily of moderate- or high-intensity exercise) should be avoided by kids in particular to prevent potential injuries to maturing bones, joints, and muscles. Even in adults, the incidence of so-called "overuse injuries," such as inflamed tendons (tendinitis) and stress fractures in bones, soars when more than sixty to ninety minutes of hard exercise is done daily.

Physical Activity Guidelines for American Youth

Your child or adolescent (ages 6 to 17) should do 60 minutes (1 hour) or more of physical activity daily, including three types, to meet the U.S. federal guidelines (2008):

  • Aerobic Activity: This should make up most of your child’s 60 or more minutes of physical activity each day, as either moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, or vigorous-intensity activity like running. Be sure to include vigorous-intensity aerobic activity at least 3 days per week.
  • Muscle Strengthening: Include muscle strengthening activities, such as gymnastics or push-ups on at least 3 days per week as part of your child’s 60 or more minutes.
  • Bone Strengthening: Include bone strengthening activities, such as jumping rope or running on at least 3 days per week as part of your child’s 60 or more minutes.

Encourage your child to participate in activities that are age-appropriate, enjoyable and offer variety!

If you need more information on managing or preventing type 2 diabetes in youth, please consult an updated and expanded version of Diabetes-Free Kids: A Take-Charge Plan for Preventing and Treating Type 2 Diabetes in Youth, which was released in August 2012 in both print and e-book formats. More information about this book and where to order it online can be found on my web site at www.shericolberg.com.