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Health blog

Children Not Getting Enough Exercise

Each year the prestigious C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital analyzes the health of the nation’s children. The National Poll on Children’s Health surveys the American public about child health issues across the country as a way to help set priorities in pediatric medicine and public health. The report also helps officials see whether messages about specific health risks for children are reaching the public.

While results of the 2013 report are not yet available, one concern moved to the top of the list in 2012 for the first time: insufficient exercise among children. Thirty-nine percent of surveyed adults felt insufficient exercise was a big health problem among the nation’s children. (Childhood obesity, and smoking and tobacco use came in second and third.)

This column earlier focused on childhood obesity, leading with the startling statistic that nearly one-third of American children and teens are overweight or obese. Let’s take a closer look at lack of sufficient exercise as a major child health issue.

Start early

Doctors suggest that adults model physical activity for children from infancy. Young children who see parents actively exercising rather than being sedentary are more likely to view exercise as a good thing, and something they want to emulate.

Between ages one and four, parents can encourage active play. Beginning at age five, children should be encouraged to engage in a minimum of one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. Sedentary time or screen time (computer, television, tablets, etc.) should be limited to two hours per day or less for all age groups.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans say that children and adolescents should engage in one hour or more of daily physical activity. An hour a day may sound like a lot of exercise at first, but by eight years old, it is common for children to spend 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media such as television, video games, cell phones, computers and movies. Some of that time can surely be put to better use!

What to do?

Fortunately, normal childhood play includes many interesting and engaging activities that children are likely to enjoy, especially with ongoing parental encouragement. Daily exercise should include a variety of moderate and vigorous intensity aerobic activities, along with muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening exercises.

Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise includes brisk walking, bicycle riding, rollerblading, hiking and skateboarding. Vigorous-intensity aerobics involve games with active running and chasing, such as tag; jumping rope, bicycle riding (at a faster rate), running, cross-country skiing, and sports such as soccer, ice or field hockey, basketball, tennis and swimming.

Muscle-strengthening exercises that children may enjoy include games such as tug of war, modified push-ups, resistance exercises using elastic bands, rope or tree climbing, sit-ups, and using playground equipment. Under adult supervision, older children may enjoy visiting their parents’ gym, if the facility allows it.

Bone-strengthening exercises are those involving weight-bearing and standing, as opposed to bicycle riding, for example. These can include hopscotch, hopping, skipping, jumping, running, gymnastics, volleyball and basketball.

First Lady Michelle Obama established “Let’s Move” with the tagline, “America’s move to raise a healthier generation of kids.” She offers an interesting alternative to counting minutes of exercise for children: to count daily activity steps with a pedometer instead. A girl’s goal is 11,000 steps per day while a boy’s goal is 13,000 steps per day.

Reap the benefits

Regular physical activity in children and adolescents has many benefits. For starters, it helps kids succeed in school. Being active for sixty minutes per day can increase concentration and focus; improve classroom attendance and behavior; and boost academic performance.

Exercise also promotes health and fitness. Compared to those who are inactive, physically active children have higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness and stronger muscles. They also typically have a lower percentage of body fat. Their bones are stronger, and they may have reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Youth who are regularly active also have a better chance of a healthy adulthood. Children and adolescents don't usually develop chronic diseases. However, over the past decade, researchers have learned that problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and obesity can begin to develop early in life.

Prevention is the best way to avoid these serious problems later in life. Regular physical activity makes it less likely that these diseases will develop and more likely that children will remain healthy as adults. It’s far easier to maintain healthy habits from a young age than to begin healthy habits as adults.

Sources: C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll of Children’s Health at: http://mottnpch.org/reports-surveys/top-10-child-health-concerns-exercise-obesity-smoking-lead-list; Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans at: http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/default.aspx; Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Program, at: http://www.letsmove.gov/get-active.
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