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Make Outdoor Time Childhood Health Priority, Surgeon General Urged

Groups Cite Health Benefits to Children of Unstructured Outdoor Play

WASHINGTON (February 3, 2010) - The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), more than 200 health, conservation, youth, and other organizations, and 16,300 Americans are urging the new surgeon general to make time outdoors a health priority for children.

The new citizen's petition and letter of support to Dr. Regina Benjamin recommend a "Call to Action" to promote the health benefits of children who engage in regular unstructured outdoor play in their backyards, at local parks, or any green space that offers the opportunity to connect with nature.

Dr. Benjamin recently joined First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to announce plans for a healthier America through regular physical activity and better nutrition. Time unplugged and in nature should be an integral part of the vision, they said.

Rebecca Garland, Executive Director of NWF's Be Out There campaign,  "congratulate[d] Dr. Regina Benjamin on her new role as America's surgeon general. [The] release of the citizen's petition and organizational sign-on letter marks the formation of a massive, diverse community, partnering together around the common goal of getting America's families healthy again and reconnected with nature. The medical, education, and environmental communities ask the surgeon general to recommend that all American children and their families take time everyday to Be Out There and interact with the natural world."

Unplugging the indoor child

  • Today's children have had less contact with nature than any generation in human history.

  • A new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that daily media use among young kids and teens is up dramatically from five years ago.

  • The average American child (ages 8 to 18) now spends seven hours 38 minutes plugged in per day. That's 53 hours per week watching electronic entertainment media - more than the equivalent of a full-time work week. While this is a troubling trend for the future of conservation, our economy, the health of our children, and the well-being of our communities are also at stake.

  • Over the last 20 years childhood obesity has doubled, adolescent obesity has tripled, and instances of ADHD have increased. 

  • Obesity is a risk factor for a number of chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis, and sleep apnea. Furthermore, the health cost of obesity in the United States could be as high as $147 billion annually, according to a study from the Research Triangle Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"As a physician, child health researcher, and parent, I am concerned that excessive media exposure can exacerbate children's risk for obesity, anxiety, violence, risky sex, smoking, and substance abuse, said Michael Rich, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Associate Professor at Harvard School of Public Health.  "The natural world is an inextricable part of who we are, as individuals and as Americans. When children are immersed in the virtual world, they are denied a connection that is not only vital to their physical, mental, and social health, but to their imagination, their identity, and their souls."

An hour of activity per day

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that children and adolescents should accumulate one hour or more of daily physical activity that is mostly aerobic and leads to stronger bones and muscles. Active, outdoor play is an excellent way to meet these guidelines.

Sheila Franklin, Executive Director of National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity (NCPPA), noted that  "A 2005 study showed that more than 30 percent of teens failed to meet national recommendations for moderate to vigorous physical activity. Regular physical activity plays a critical role in the prevention of chronic illness, regarded as a top priority in health reform for Americans.

"The NCPPA looks forward to working with Dr. Benjamin this year to address continuing health issues such as increasing American's physical activity. It is important to instill in our children the importance of daily physical activity. The upcoming inaugural National Physical Activity Plan will include a variety of strategies that encourage families to spend active time outdoors."

Kimberly Avila Edwards MD, FAAP, Department of Pediatrics, UT Southwestern-Austin, Dell Children's Hospital, observed that "Children who are outdoors are more physically active than those who sit in front of a television or computer. The health of America's children mirrors the strength of our nation's future, and the childhood obesity epidemic is one of the greatest health challenges we face. Physical activity, including being outside in fresh air, plays a critical role in the treatment and prevention of pediatric and adult health issues. Combating obesity, heart disease, diabetes, joint problems, and even depression will take a coordinated effort across a broad spectrum of organizations. We support Dr. Benjamin and look forward to collaborating for a solution."

Benefits of outdoor play

  • Better eyesight. Children who regularly spend time outside may be less likely than their peers to develop nearsightedness, according to recent research reported in the journal Optometry and Vision Science. Participating children who spent more time outside during the day tended to have better distance vision than those who favored indoor activities.
  • Better health.  Children who play outdoors are more active and burn more calories than those who sit in front of a television or computer.  There is compelling research in the fields of public health, psychology, and elsewhere documenting that America's ‘indoor childhood' has significant implications on a child's physical and mental health. Children reap significant benefits when encouraged to spend active time in an outdoor setting interacting with nature.

  • Better classroom preparedness.  NWF's report,  TIME OUT: Using the Outdoors to Enhance Classroom Performance, highlights vast research linking time kids spend outside to increased classroom preparedness.  America's increasingly indoor lifestyle causes several factors that work against high performance in the classroom. Lack of unstructured playtime outdoors for some children leads to shorter attention spans, increased aggressive behavior, and higher stress and depression levels.

Take the "Be Out There" Pledge!

NWF is urging parents to make the 2010 Be Out There pledge to spend more time outside in the New Year. Every parent and family that takes the pledge will receive the Know, Go, and Grow Be Out There tool kit with important facts, fun tips, and interactive tools to help them meet their pledge.

Source: National Wildlife Federation

Created February 3, 2010

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