The percentage of overweight and obese kids and teens has more than doubled over the past 30 years in the United States. Not surprisingly, the rise in body fat among youth corresponds with the decline in their level of physical fitness. So not only do today’s children have a higher percent body fat, they’re also considerably less fit and active then children of the 1960s.

Why is this? Like any problem, there are no simple or easy answers. Instead, there are many mitigating factors including poor diet, our increasingly consumption-driven society and the increase in urbanization and industrialization over the last fifty years. That being said, there is one glaring problem among youth that’s fairly easy to pinpoint: children are increasingly less and less active. The average U.S. child spends 20% of his or her waking time watching TV, and 35% of their time (or five-plus hours) on all screen media combined (TV, videos and DVDs, computer time outside of schoolwork, and video games). As a society, we need to foster an environment where children can, and will, be active. Everyone can benefit from regular exercise, but helping children get active is vitally important. Teaching the youth of today how to include positive health habits early within their lives will help them have a greater chance of living a healthy lifestyle later in life. Children and youth benefit from exercise in several ways. Through regular physical fitness, they’ll have a heightened ability to deal with the physical and emotional stresses of daily life. Exercise strengthens bones and muscles and burns calories, reducing body fat and helping children achieve a healthier body image.

With exercise, children also reduce the risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and high blood cholesterol levels. While the importance of exercise for youth is obvious, how do we help increase their activity level, and what activities are safe for youth to participate in? When most adults think about exercise, they imagine working out in the gym on a treadmill or lifting weights. Adults need a balanced exercise program with weight training, cardiovascular activities and flexibility training. Youth, however (unless they are training for high-level sports competition), do not need to exercise in such a structured manor they just need to move. For kids, exercise should mean playing and being physically active and participating in activities they enjoy. Just get them outside and away from the computer or TV. Have them play a sport, dance, play at recess, ride a bike, play tag or jump rope. If they get outside and move, they’ll get a balanced exercise routine. Bending down to pick up the baseball or dancing will make them flexible, climbing the monkey bars can be considered their strength-training regime, and tag or soccer takes care of their cardio/ endurance training. As a parent, try to make sure your children who are two years or older get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise on most days of the week. The exercise can be broken down into ‘mini-activity bursts of fifteen or thirty minutes, as long as the total time equals an hour.

To think of it another way, ideally, youth should NOT be inactive for prolonged periods of time. Unless your child is sleeping, try not to let your infant or young child be sedentary for more than an hour. School-age children should not be inactive for periods longer than a couple hours. Always remember that kids learn by example, so try to live a healthier lifestyle yourself. Get out there and bike or play sports with them. If they see you being active and having fun, they’re much more likely to do the same. Although most parents worry about their kids not getting enough exercise, occasionally parents of athletic children may worry that too much exercise could compromise their child’s health in the long run. It’s hard to say exactly how much exercise is too much for growing children and youth, but parents should watch for signs of over-training and over-use, which can lead to injuries. Listen to your kids if they complain of being in pain. Watch for signs of exhaustion in your kids, too. Other signs of over-training can include a drop in performance, mistakes in routines, or a lack of motivation and irritability. In general, to guard against over-training, vary the activities your child participates in and make sure the exercise is fun. If your child plays sports competitively, make sure their coach is knowledgeable and certified. Talk with the coach if you notice your child developing any of the symptoms of over-training mentioned above.

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