Our children have never been more sedentary.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016, only 21.6 per cent of children and adolescents in the United States aged six to 19 met the recommended 60 or more minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity at least five times a week. It’s a safe bet that number is even lower today.
Moreover, while physical education and recess time continues to be cut by schools, less than half of the children in the U.S. have adequate heart and lung fitness.
The overall health implications of this level of physical inactivity are certainly scary. For example, Type 2 diabetes once was considered an adult disease, hence the term “adult-onset diabetes.” However, because more kids are overweight and obese, the incidence of the disease has increased dramatically in children and adolescents.
The popular perception is that the U.S. is a sports-mad country. The reality is, it’s a country of passionate sports fans that, for the most part, aren’t sports participants. Adults and children need to move more and watch less. Collectively, in terms of participation in sports and other physical activities, we are a bunch of couch potatoes.
“Research has shown that lack of physical activity may be a more significant factor in contributing to childhood obesity than even bad diet,” according to Tom McMillen, former Congressman, National Basketball Player player, and current board member of the National Foundation for Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. He adds:
“Other research in adults indicates that poor fitness is a more significant predictor of death than obesity generally, diabetes and other causes. In other words, the most important thing we can do for the health of our kids is to get them up off the couch.”
Forty-five years ago, daily physical education was the norm for kindergarten to Grade 12 students. Today, according to the American Heart Association, less than five per cent of elementary schools and two per cent of high schools have daily physical education class for the entire school year. In addition, nearly a quarter of American schools don’t require physical education class at all!
The problem isn’t just the decline in phys-ed, however. Too many of our kids are being priced out of youth sports and other physical activities. Economic and cultural differences, like income, the neighbourhood a child lives in, the language spoken at home, and other factors leave too many children on the sideline.
The mound of studies highlighting the benefits of physical activity continues to grow. Research has shown that exercise is not only good for the body, it also promotes self-esteem, and can sharpen concentration and boost academic performance. Cardiovascular-based exercise is the one thing that can actually grow brain cells.
It’s sad when as adults we choose to lead inactive lifestyles. But it’s even sadder when we don’t provide our children the opportunity to establish physically-active lifestyles when they are young.
Here’s the reality of the situation: Our children are on pace to be significantly more overweight and obese than we are by the time they reach adulthood.
If we continue to cut physical education and recess in our schools, and neglect to effectively address economic and cultural barriers to participation in youth sports and other physical activities for a large number of our children, the physical and mental health challenges our young people will face in adulthood will be daunting.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.
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