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Exercise and children: an important part of growing up healthy

Kids today….” It’s an age-old refrain, one we all heard when we were growing up – usually as an introduction to some perceived failing. But when it comes to fitness and obesity, the perception is all too real. Kids today are more overweight and less fit than their parents were.

According to the American Obesity Association, approximately 25 percent of children and adolescents are considered overweight, a figure which has doubled in 30 years.

The decline in fitness has been recognized as a national problem, one that was addressed in the Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health, which was commissioned in 1994.

“For young people – the future of our country – physical activity declines dramatically during adolescence,” notes Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services, in the report’s introduction. “These are dangerous trends. We need to turn them around quickly, for the health of our citizens and our country.”

The report revealed that participation in all types of physical activity declines strikingly as age or grade in school increases. In recent years, the decline has become more severe. Daily enrollment in physical education classes among high school students plummeted from 42 percent in 1991 to 25 percent in 1995.

The causes are easy enough to determine. We’ve evolved from a rural, agrarian society to an industrial nation and now we are well into the Age of Technology. Each transition has reduced the need for strength and stamina to do our work. And technology, in particular, has changed the way our children play.

“Today’s children are much more sedentary; they want to sit in front of the computer or the television, or play video games,” says physician Kathleen Counihan, D.O., who works at the University of Arizona Campus Health Center. Combine that inactivity with a diet that is high in fat, Counihan adds, and you have a recipe for poor health.

“Nutrition goes hand in hand with exercise,” says Shari Palen, D.O., who notes that even school lunch programs can’t be relied on for nutritious meals, especially those programs that include fast food restaurant meals as an option. “Convenience foods are loaded with fat, salt and sugar.” Palen recommends emphasizing fresh vegetables and fruits in your child’s diet.

Exercise plays a significant role in developing a healthy cardio-pulmonary system, adds Palen, a Tucson physician who is currently on sabbatical. (Palen is a stay-at-home mom for her five children, age 20 months to 10. She is expecting a sixth.)

Obesity can contribute to adult-onset diabetes, Palen says, citing a study of members of the Yaqui tribe who live in two areas. In one area, tribe members practice farming and stay active. In the other area they lead a more sedentary life. “The tribe members who are less active have a high incidence of adult onset diabetes at an early age – some in their 20s – because of their sedentary lifestyle,” she says.

Counihan adds that exercise can help a child’s psychological health. “Endorphins affect mood,” she says. (Endorphins are peptide neurotransmitters produced by the brain that have natural pain-relieving capability as well as elevating one’s mood. Exercise stimulates endorphin production.) “Exercise helps release stress, and burn off that extra energy,” she continues. “If you have a hyperactive child it can help, and it may be possible to avoid or reduce the dosage of medication.”

“I think it’s important to encourage activity from a very early age,” Palen says. “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends restricting children from watching television before age 2.”

Limiting television and hours spent at the computer or playing video games is one way for parents to steer their children to a more active lifestyle. Another is to be directly involved in outdoor activities. “The parent has to participate by being a positive role model, and actually schedule exercise in during their week,” says Counihan, the mother of two. “We take a walk in the evening after dinner. It doesn’t cost anything and it’s fun.” Those walks, she adds, can serve not only as an educational opportunity but also to foster family communication and cohesiveness.

Palen notes that not every neighborhood is safe for family outings, and in those areas parents need to find alternatives.

“Just playing at the playground is exercise,” she adds. “Parents need to encourage outdoor activity as a group, because the children are not going to do it by themselves. Get them to ride a bike. I’m amazed at how many second-graders I’ve seen who can’t ride a bike.”

Children need a safe place to ride a bike, Palen adds, and should always wear a helmet that fits and is properly adjusted. (The chin strap should be snug and the helmet should cover the front of the forehead.)

For older children, team sports are a good way to get exercise – and a lot more, says Counihan, who works with female athletes at the University of Arizona McKale Center.

“They learn important skills such as teamwork respect, responsibility, and communication,” she explains. “Whatever form of exercise you and your child choose, make sure it sparks interest, is easy to do on a regular basis and most of all is fun!”