We know that American adults are couch potatoes. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, only 5% of US adults are physically active for 30 minutes every day, and only one in three gets the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity every week. It's understood that people get less active as they get older, but we generally think of children as being physically active. However, according to a study in the journal Pediatrics, these days being a couch potato starts in childhood.
As part of the Childhood Obesity Project in Europe, researchers followed 600 children between the ages of 6 and 11, and measured how physically active they were using a wristband designed for that purpose. They found that physical activity was lower than expected even starting at age 6, with only 80% being active for the recommended 60 minutes a day. It wasn't just a matter of starting school, either. Researchers found that they weren't particularly active on weekends, school holidays — or even at lunchtime, when they generally have recess.
Activity declined steeply after age 8. By age 11 only 20% were active for an hour a day. Boys were more likely to engage in more vigorous activity than girls. Interestingly, they also found that overweight children were less likely to be active than children who were at a healthy weight, which raises an interesting question: is obesity not just a result of a lack of physical activity, but also a cause of it?
For anyone who has or interacts with children, this information is probably not a surprise. As the study notes, there has been a massive increase in sitting activities in children over the last decades. Much of this is screen-related — initially with video games, and now including social media and other activities that children do on their phones. Just going outside and playing has become less common. There is less free time for children, who are far more scheduled than they used to be. Physical activity tends to take place in the setting of organized sports — which, unless a child is at or working toward an elite level, rarely take place every day. For many low-income children, there are few safe spaces to play outside, and not only can their families not afford the cost of organized activity, but because of work and other life realities they are not able to supervise them in safe play or exercise with them.
All of this matters — because physical activity habits start early. Children who are sedentary turn into sedentary adolescents who turn into sedentary adults. And being sedentary not only puts people at risk of obesity, but is a risk factor in and of itself for a whole host of health problems. If we want our children to live healthy lives, we need to get them moving.
How to get children moving more
Here are some ideas:
- Look for sports teams and other physical activity opportunities in your community. Many communities offer low-cost activities, and scholarships are often available if you ask.
- Look for and support school-based exercise opportunities. (This is yet another reason why children need recess!)
- For elementary school children, instead of scooping your child up at school pickup and heading home right away, stay and let your child play on the playground for a while if you can.
- Limit screen time (of all kinds). Children should be engaged in entertainment media for no more than two hours a day. If your child is spending a lot of time on his or her phone, consider taking it away as soon as they come home.
- If it's hard to get out to exercise for whatever reason, get creative about exercising at home. Use exercise equipment like a stationary bike. Exercise videos are widely available on cable and the Internet; move the furniture back, make some space, and have your own Zumba class. Or just turn on some music and dance.
- Go for walks and do other exercise together. Not only will your child get moving, but you will too — which sets a good example and helps you get healthier.
This study also points out that it's important to start early. As a pediatrician, I see sedentary habits start very early, with families that put their children in seats and playpens rather than putting them on the floor to learn to crawl and stand. As soon as a child can move, we need to give them lots of opportunities to do so — and we need to keep it up throughout childhood. Their future health depends on it.