As an adult you are undoubtedly aware of health and fitness issues. Every television newscast carries a significant segment on medical concerns and related information, including regular exercise. Most magazines publish sections on fitness and many newspapers carry weekly columns about exercise. It would be difficult to find a community without a health club or certified personal trainers.
These and other sources keep you well-informed about the benefits of a physically active lifestyle, not the least of which is a reduced risk of obesity. The health problems associated include many serious diseases and metabolic disorders such as Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, coronary heart disease, gall bladder disease, respiratory dysfunction, various forms of cancer, and osteoarthritis. With one in four adults classified as obese, and three out of four adults considered overfat, exercise is presently receiving the attention it deserves as a preventive measure and intervention technique.
Unfortunately, the exercise education and motivation directed towards men and women of all ages is almost absent in the lives of boys and girls. The results are all too obvious, with a 50 percent increase in childhood obesity over the past two decades. Understanding that overweight youth typically become overweight adults, this represents a very serious problem. It is also a problem that many adolescents recognize and try to address on their own. According to the 1999 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results, nearly half of all students are currently trying to lose weight. Unfortunately, the typical youth diet is not very healthful with only about 15 percent of the students eating enough fruits and vegetables, and just over 20 percent of the students drinking enough milk to meet their calcium requirements.
The news regarding youth physical activity patterns is not much more encouraging. The survey results reveal significant declines in both sports team participation and physical education class enrollment since 1993. According to the 1999 report, Massachusetts high school students watch an average of two hours of television on school days. However, only one-quarter of adolescents meet the minimum exercise recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week.
There are many reasons for the reduced participation rates and lower fitness levels characteristic of today’s young people. In addition to watching at least two hours of television each day, most youth spend similar amounts of time viewing videos, going to movies and surfing the internet. While these passive pursuits are not necessarily bad, collectively they certainly leave little time for doing physical activities.
With the possible exception of basketball in some neighborhoods, kids do not come home from school and play pick-up sports as they did in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Times have also changed with respect to daily chores and physical tasks in the house and yard. Even children who work do so differently than in past decades. For example, cutting the lawn is now accomplished by riding a lawnmower rather than pushing one, clearing the driveway is now done with a snowblower instead of a snow shovel, and removing leaves is presently approached with a leaf blower rather than a rake. Most boys and girls have never even lifted the garage door, as these are typically controlled automatically by electric motors.
Although many preadolescents enjoy community sports programs, such as age-group soccer, participation drops off sharply as the programs become more competitive and selective. Consider that of the hundreds of elementary school children playing soccer on Saturday mornings, only a couple dozen will make the high school team a few years later.
In spite of all these obstacles, youth in this country have previously had the privilege of taking physical education classes in our public schools. Unfortunately, like many other states, Massachusetts recently lost its mandate for school physical education. Some communities have maintained high-quality physical education programs and others have developed school-based fitness centers similar to health clubs, but these are certainly the exceptions rather than the rule. Sad to say, the majority of school systems have simply let physical education slide with too few teachers, too few program options, and too few of the students who desperately need exercise activities.
Let me sum up the problem as briefly as possible. Due largely to lifestyle factors that favor fast foods and sedentary pursuits rather that nutritious meals and physical activity, many young people are overfat and underfit. Worse yet, they typically do not know how to change their situation in a positive and productive manner. They really need our help. Without responsible leadership in the essential elements of health and fitness, many youth will become discouraged and never try to improve their physical condition.
Perhaps the best thing we can do is work to reinstate quality physical education programs back in the public schools. Better yet, in addition to activity classes in the gymnasium and pool, we should support physical fitness centers in our schools. With well-equipped fitness centers all young people can perform productive exercise that helps them to look better, feel better and function better, as well as establish a lifestyle that should enhance their health as youth and adults.
We should also encourage young people to participate in a variety of physically active pursuits such as weight training, cycling, hiking, rock climbing, skating, canoeing, skiing, etc. There are many non-competitive options for those who are not sports minded, and, of course, there are all kinds of competitive activities for those with athletic interests and abilities. For example, a boy or girl doesn’t have to make the high school golf team to enjoy playing golf with family or friends.
Finally, we should lead our children by example, taking a little time each day to exercise and making healthy eating selections when we snack. Children who observe their parents lifting weights typically want to join them, and children who see their parents snacking on fruit are less likely to choose candy and chips for themselves.
Our kids definitely need help in the areas of exercise, nutrition and fitness. In addition to providing appropriate facilities, equipment, programs and professional leadership, the role model that we present as adults can be a major motivation factor.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South
Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of books including the new releases Strength Training Past 50 and Strength and Power for Young Athletes.