If you ask parents if their kids are fit, most will say “yes”. If you ask kids if they are fit, most think they are. A new study out tomorrow in JAMA rocks those perceptions to the core with quite a reality check. (JAMA. 2008;300:295-305.)
The recommended amount of activity to stay healthy and avoid things like obesity is 60 minutes a day for kids. This doesn’t have to occur all at once but over the course of the entire day. Recess counts. Gym counts. Running outside after school – counts. How many kids are meeting this mark? That is just what researchers out of UC San Diego wanted to know, and the results shock you.
The researchers followed 1000 kids ages 9-15 who wore a special belt called a accelerometer to monitor their physical activity levels 1 week a year at ages 9, 11, 12, and 15. Most kids met the guidelines at ages 9 and 11 - good news so far. However, by age 15, less than 1/3 were getting the recommended amount of exercise! Girls started to dip in their activity around age 13 years of age and boys around age 14.7.
Despite a few limitations with the study, which all studies have, the results are a big wake up call for all of us that our kids' future healths are at huge risk! If you take a moment to look around your community, you'll know what I mean. It is like a switch gets tossed between tweendom and teendom and sets a ball in motion that doesn't bode well for what these kids will be like as adults. As stated in the study's conclusion:
“This decrease [in physical activity] augurs poorly for levels of physical activity in U.S. adults and potentially for health over the course of a lifetime. Consequently, there is a need for program and policy action as early as possible at the family, community, school, health care, and governmental levels to address the problem of decreasing physical activity with increasing age.”
Programs are a great idea but those will take time to develop and implement. While that process is ongoing, there is a great deal you can do to improve your family's physical activity amount and, consequently, future health:
1. Get everyone moving more each and every day. Make it a family affair. In my family, we take a walk together at some point around dinner time. Start small and build from there. Small changes over time tend to be the ones with the biggest long term benefits - and the ones that create the best life-long habits.
2. Hunt for activities your kids can have fun with as kids but that will carry over into adult life. These tend to be the more individual sports. Team sports are fantastic but most kids won't carry those over beyond childhood.
3. Carve out time for free play as often as possible. Old fashioned outdoor fun with no game plan will let you kids burn off steam daily as well as fill an important developmental and emotional need.
Finally, this study puts the recent debate of Statin drug use in kids in a very different light. As I wrote recently, I'm ambivalent about the use of Statins in kids. The risk/benefit analysis seems shaky to me, as well as to many of my pediatric colleagues. It is hard to recommend a pill for a child in that setting. But, now that we know kids are not moving enough, we can't count on that to keep cholesterol in check either. Talk about a catch-22! It may very well be that until we get kids more active, Statins are our only alternative for some kids - emphasis on some!
So, with the Statin recommendation lurking in the wings and this new JAMA study opening our eyes on how much kids are really moving as they become teenagers, what now? Do as they do in the Madagascar movie, just move it!