It's a fact that kids are not as active today as in generations past. Hectic lives with dual-income parents and complicated daycare/after school plans leave little time for old-fashioned running around. According to the American Heart Association, kids in the United States are much less fit than kids a generation ago. Childhood obesity is an all-time high and with it comes concerns for the heart health of too many kids as well as concerns for lifetime struggles with cholesterol and high blood pressure. Too many parents fail to heed expert warning that overweight kids become overweight adults. These are the adults likely to suffer strokes and heart attacks at young ages.
In addition to the heart-healthy benefits of exercise, active kids and adults are usually more energetic and happier than those not as active. The better children feel about themselves, the more interested they will be in participating in school and activities with friends. Kids who have high self-esteem are also more likely to try new things and stay out of trouble. So, having high energy creates a domino effect leading to a cascade of positive rewards in a person's life.
Today's schedules are a bit too crazed for today's kids and that does make it a challenge to fit in activity. You don't necessarily have to hunt for organized sports or programs, just 60 minutes a day of being active counts for all ages! The after-school time is a perfect time to let kids play outside. And, this could become a wonderful family bonding moment with parents and kids talking walks together or tossing about a ball.
The University of Missouri has a "Children's Activity Pyramid" that is very helpful in conceptualizing what kids need each day.
In a nutshell:
- Reduce time spent with TV and video/computer games; don't sit for 30 minutes or more at a time
- 2-3 times a week of flexibility and strength training: yoga, stretching, martial arts
- 3-5 times a week of aerobic and recreational activities: biking, jumping rope, playground games, ball games, swimming
- Doing something active every day! (play outside, use the stairs, help around the house and in the yard, pick up toys, walk)
To help your kids stay focused with this, use the log that comes with the pyramid. Put it on the fridge and fill it out as a family. Since we live in a planning-based society, use dinner time to talk about what activities you all may want to do the next day. It's a great way to get the family talking and having something fun to look forward to the following day.
This is a very realistic pyramid and you can use weekends as well as after work/school/camp. The key is to make sure you hit all the types of activities on the pyramid most weeks. You won't have to sweat the weeks you are off if most weeks you hit the target. If you couple following this pyramid with healthy eating, you're entire family's health will improve dramatically and any one who needs to shed a few pounds will be on a better path to accomplishing that goal.
Luckily for us, kids have an inner urge to move. Our job is to tap into that urge and foster it as much as possible. Given our busy lives, the more we can get involved with our kids for some of these activities, the better off our family well being will be overall. If kids see the adults in their lives exercising and limiting sedentary activities and technology, they will be more likely to do so. TV shows, videos, computer games all have their place but should be a small part of any child's day - less than two hours per day is the "official" recommendation. Try a family challenge for a few days to see who can do this the longest - initially it may be hard to resist the temptation to plop on the couch and flick on a show. But, as with anything, the more you do the more it will become second nature!
Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD is a pediatrician living in the Boston area.
Revised May 11, 2011