Back-to-school season is usually a time for parents to begin worrying about whether Johnny and Jane are being adequately taught to read, write and do math. But recent studies tell parents they should be just as concerned about how their children are developing in places other than the brain. To put it bluntly, our kids are fat and getting fatter, and less and less physically active. Research shows that a high percentage of overweight children carry their excess pounds into adulthood, putting them at risk of premature death, chronic disease and disability. Doctors are already seeing a rise in Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol in children. Dr. Andrew Pipe, director of the Prevention and Rehabilitation Center at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, and a leading expert in this field, calls the rise in obesity among children “nothing short of a public health disaster.”
Even children and youth who are not overweight may be at risk due to physical inactivity. The Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute has determined that three out of five Canadian children (aged 5 to 17) are not active enough for optimal growth and development. That means they are doing less than it takes to walk an hour a day plus half an hour of vigorous activity like soccer, hockey, dance or martial arts — hardly a large amount for young, growing bodies. There are three major reasons for this trend. First, our kids are too sedentary. They spend too much time on the computer and watching television, which has been linked to obesity.
Second, they are not active enough. They don’t walk or bike to school any more, they ride the bus. When they are in school, they don’t spend enough time in the gym or on the playground. At home, concerns about safety keep many parents from sending their children outside to play. Last, children eat too much junk food, and not enough healthy foods.
The bottom line is we’re not doing our children any favors. In fact, we’re playing Russian roulette with their lives. What can we do? Getting our children to eat properly and be physically active is not rocket science, but it is not as easily accomplished as we might think. Recent guidelines recommend that inactive children and youth start increasing the time they currently spend being physically active by at least 30 minutes a day. This should include a combination of both moderate activity, such as walking and biking, and vigorous activity, such as running and playing soccer.
The Center of Disease Control has published basic guidelines for maintaining an active lifestyle for children. These guidelines include:
- Children and adolescents should do 60 minutes (1 hour) or more of physical activity each day.
- Encourage your child to participate in activities that are age-appropriate, enjoyable and offer variety.
- Aerobic activity should make up most of your child’s 60 or more minutes of physical activity each day. This can include either moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, or vigorous-intensity activity, such as running. Be sure to include vigorous-intensity aerobic activity on at least 3 days per week.
- Include muscle strengthening activities, such as gymnastics or push-ups, at least 3 days per week as part of your child’s 60 or more minutes.
- Include bone strengthening activities, such as jumping rope or running, at least 3 days per week as part of your child’s 60 or more minutes.
Over several months, children should try to build up to at least 90 minutes more physical activity per day. In time, this may help kids come to accept that physical activity is as important to protecting their health as wearing a seatbelt, and as routine as brushing their teeth. For parents and care providers, it’s mostly common sense. Enroll your children in their favorite sport, or try a new one. Turn off the TV and computer and take them outside. Hide the video games. Go for a walk, a bike ride, a hike — anything that gets everyone moving. Children learn what they see, and parents are their most important role models when it comes to being physically active.
Recently, the Alberta, Canada government said it would make daily gym class mandatory in all elementary and secondary schools. That’s something that all school districts should emulate. As well, educators and parents need to understand that opportunities for physical activity should not end with a 40-minute gym class. Some schools, in fact, have already learned that lesson. Secord Elementary School in Toronto has received national recognition for its physical education program which offers students 150 minutes of activity every week. Physical education is scheduled daily into the timetable of every class. Use is also made of a multi-purpose room and a gym at a local community center. The school also takes advantage of other community facilities, such as skating at the local outdoor arena and running at a local park.
These efforts are welcome, but in isolation they won’t solve the overall problem. Parents and schools alone can’t end the growing epidemic of childhood obesity and inactivity. What is needed is for everyone who has an impact on children’s lives to play their part in a sustained, co-ordinated effort. Parents, educators, health professionals, local, state, and federal governments — even fast food producers — need to think hard about what we’re doing to our children, or allowing them to do to themselves.
Their lives literally depend on it.