Kicking Into Gear: Children and Fitness

Once a habit is formed, it is hard to break. That is why starting good habits young, especially if the habits involve fitness and nutrition, is important. Too many children today are on course to become, or are already, overweight or obese. Helping children and adolescents to form habits or hobbies that require physical activity and a healthy diet benefits them in their immediate future and into adulthood. The act of obtaining exercise itself can benefit children and adolescents by reducing stress, allowing them to gain confidence in themselves as well as self-esteem, helping to maintain a healthy weight, feeling more inclined to learn in school, building healthy bones, joints and muscles, as well as helping to sleep better at night.

Very few children are physically active every day, in fact, only about one in three children are. In fact, only 6 states require some sort of physical education class to be taught to children ages K-12; Illinois, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York and Vermont. Children need about an hour, or 60 minutes of physical activity per day instead of the 7+ hours they now spend in front of some sort of screen, be it television, computer or video games. That hour can be spread throughout the day or done all at once, but it involve 3 types of workouts. To help start this, parents can set good examples for their children, simply by exercising more and watching less TV. Exercising as a family can be excellent motivation, as well as joining a team in some sort of competitive sport.

Aerobic activity should take up the majority of the time in that 60, or more, minutes. Aerobic activity can be anywhere from moderate activity, for instance, a brisk walk or a hike, to vigorous, which would be running or kickboxing. Vigorous exercises however, should only be done about 3 times a week. Muscle and bone building are the other two types of exercise that takes up the rest of that hour a day. Muscle building for adolescents can be more of a defined weight training regimen, whereas for children, especially young children, playing on a playground or climbing trees accomplishes the same. Bone strengthening is considered to be activities such as jumping rope and running. Bone strengthening exercises are most important in youths because they have the greatest gains in bone mass right before, and during, puberty. By the end of adolescence, the majority of peak bone mass has been acquired.

Creating good physically active habits today can lead to both short term and long term health benefits. Besides the benefits listed above, some studies have discovered links between brain development and physical fitness. Physically active children also have higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness and stronger muscles, as well as lower body fatness. More physically active children and adolescents also tend to have stronger bones and, in many cases, have reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. Regular physical activity can also reduce the risk of factors leading to osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. There are even programs structured to help form the basis of healthy habits.

Nutrition is equally as important to have healthy habits in, as all the physical activity can be negated by poor diet choices. The average American diet consumes over the recommended amount of saturated fat, refined grains, sodium, and calories from solid fats and added sugars. Setting good examples for healthy snacks like carrots, broccoli or celery means good habits around bags of chips or French fries in the future. Since the 1970s, the amount of fast food restaurants has more than doubled, and, consequently, so has the obesity rate in children between the ages of 2 and 5, changing from 5% to 10% in the same amount of time. The obesity rates in children ages 6-11 has quadrupled, from 4% in the 1970s, to 20%, and in adolescents from 12 to 19, the rate went from 6% to 18%. Children who have disabilities have an obesity rate that is 38% higher than children without disabilities. Adolescents that are overweight have a 70% chance of becoming obese or overweight adults. Empty calories, like soda, fruit drinks, pizza, whole milk and grain desserts end up having a bigger impact than intended on the average diet, contributing up to at least 40%.

Making smart nutrition choices early and setting a good example for children at a young age can help them become healthier, more active adults in the future. 60 minutes a day can set them apart from the estimated 12.4 million children and adolescents that are obese, as well as providing them with fewer health risk factors in the long run. After all, habits, especially good ones, are hard to break.

For more resources on keeping children and adolescents fit and healthy:

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