How important is kids fitness? To judge by common practice these days, it doesn’t rate very highly – as school schedules have been squeezed more and more physical education has become a low priority activity, while many children are driven to and from school and have sedentary pastimes such as playing video games at home. Kids fitness is just not a high enough priority it seems.
The result? In the past 10 years, the number of obese six year olds has doubled while the number of obese 15 year olds has tripled.
However, there is compelling evidence that this is just the tip of the iceberg of a bigger health problem.
Research shows that obesity in children can lead to diabetes and heart disease later in life and even premature death.
Doctors are now seeing key risk factors for coronary heart disease at earlier and earlier ages – indeed, a new study by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found obese children as young as 3 years old with elevated levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation that is recognized as an early warning sign for possible future heart disease1.
Furthermore, conditions such as high blood pressure are increasingly common in overweight or obese children.
So what can be done? Simple – kids need to increase their fitness levels by increasing their active play and exercise!
There is a remarkable degree of consistency in what official bodies around the world recommend for kids – the CDC's Nutrition and Physical Activity and Adolescent and School Health Divisions2, the British Heart Foundation and the Health Education Authority all recommend that children between the ages of five and 18 participate in at least one hour of moderate intensity every day.
Kids Fitness Activites
This means activities like:
• Brisk walking
In addition, it is recommended that at least twice a week children participate in activities that enhance strength, flexibility and bone health. These include activities like:
• Skipping (Jump Roping)
It is clear that improving kids fitness will help them to be healthier and maintain a safe weight, but there is also a growing body of evidence that physical activity actually helps children perform better academically.
The CDC panel supports this, as do researchers like Dr. Antronette Yancey at the UCLA Center to Eliminate Health Disparities. She believes:
• Kids pay better attention to their subjects when they've been active.
• Kids are less likely to be disruptive in terms of their classroom behavior when they're active.
• Kids feel better about themselves, have higher self-esteem, less depression, less anxiety
This is supported by the research of Dr. John Ratey, a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and the author of "Spark," a book that examines how our brains change when we exercise3.
Dr. John Ratey describes exercise as food for the brain and says that animal studies have shown that exercise stimulates development of new brain cells in an area of the brain called the hippocampus, which is associated with memory and learning.
Ratey says that "Exercise optimizes the brain and the person for learning. It creates the right environment for all of our 100 billion nerve cells up there…It produces these growth factors, one of which is call BDNF…which helps the brain cells stay alive, live longer and it helps the learning process."
Other research also supports this. A project that looked at 200 6th graders found that students who took part in vigorous physical activities such as sports like soccer or football – or indeed non-organized after-school activities like skateboarding – performed 10 percent better in core classes such as math, science, English and social studies 4.
Given that kids fitness not only helps children to be healthier, but also improves their academic performance, it should be a priority for all schools and parents.
1Asheley Cockrell Skinner, Michael J. Steiner, Frederick W. Henderson, and Eliana M. Perrin. Multiple Markers of Inflammation and Weight Status: Cross-sectional Analyses Throughout Childhood. Pediatrics, March 2010
2Stephen R. Daniels, MD, PhD. Journal of Pediatrics June 2005
3Ratey, Dr. John J.: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain
4Pivarnik, Jim, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: The official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, August 2006
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