It may be apparent to a person who is interested in physical education that physical inactivity can result in a number of problems for children. Lack of play and movement is a major risk factor for developing coronary artery disease. Additionally, it increases the risk of stroke and other cardiovascular problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, low HDL or “good” cholesterol, and diabetes.
Regular physical activity helps children build and maintain good health and reduces feelings of depression and anxiety. Regular activity may, through its effect on mental health, increase students’ capacity for learning. Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.
Children love to move — they wave their arms, jump around, run, and climb. The problem today is that many children find themselves in “sedentary alternatives.” They could be children of single parents, or both parents may work. Parents also may be caught in the sedentary alternative lifestyle, being less fit than they perceive. This could leave the child trapped in various situations for safety and for convenience. For instance:
- Children ride in a car or bus to school.
- Classes don’t provide for physical education.
- Children watch more television.
- Children play more sedentary games, such as computer games.
- Children often do not have the freedom to play outside on their own for safety reasons.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical inactivity has contributed to the 100-percent increase in the prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States since 1980. Although some of the diseases and heart issues discussed in the first paragraph seem to belong to adults, that scenario has changed dramatically.
- Obesity in children is a major risk factor for a number of diseases that normally belong to adults (e.g. diabetes, hypertension, elevated blood cholesterol).
- Childhood obesity tends to lead to adult obesity.
- Adults who were obese as children have increased morbidity and mortality irrespective of adult weight.
- Overweight adolescents may suffer long-term social and economic discrimination.
Other Reasons for Physical Activity
Besides reducing the risks associated with childhood obesity and associated illnesses, physical activity is important for other reasons. Being physically active provides children opportunities to learn through movement, provides stronger relationships, and allows children to set and reach goals. Shape America provides a number of reasons for children to become active. Some of these reasons include:
- Improved physical fitness improves children’s physical fitness, flexibility, endurance, and motor skills. In turn, the child develops self-confidence.
- Self discipline facilitates development of student responsibility for health and fitness.
- Students have the opportunity to assume leadership, cooperate with others, question actions and regulations, and accept responsibility for their own behavior when playing games or participating in group activities.
- Activity can become an outlet for releasing tension and anxiety, and facilitates emotional stability and resilience.
- Strengthened peer relationships occur during play times or physical activity and can be a major force in helping children socialize with others successfully.
- Play and activities provide opportunities to learn positive people skills, especially during late childhood and adolescence. Being able to participate in dances, games and sports is an important part of peer culture.
- Experience setting goals can occur with games and other skills such as dancing, providing children the opportunity for achievement.
Currently, many schoolchildren are given less free time and fewer physical outlets at school; many school districts responded to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 by reducing time committed to recess, the creative arts, and physical education in efforts to focus on reading and mathematics. This lack of change may have implications on a child’s ability to store new information, because that child’s cognitive capacity is enhanced by a clear-cut and significant change in activity.
Young children learn about their world through movement and physical activity. Integrating physical activity with other subject areas gives children more opportunities to move during the school day. But, parents also can participate in their children’s activities. Studies show that, sometimes, all it takes is the simple willingness to turn off the television or the computer game and suggest an alternative for children to participate.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education issued physical activity guidelines suggesting that young children should have an accumulation of more than 60 minutes and up to several hours of physical activity each day to promote health and well-being. If an hour is not available, that time can be broken into two half-hour segments or even four 15-minute intervals.
The major barriers most people face when trying to increase physical activity are time, access to convenient facilities, and safe environments in which to be active. Additionally, some families already overburdened by work responsibilities and maintaining a household may find their own time stressed in arranging activities for children. In some cases, it is known that a hurried lifestyle and overscheduling may lead to less emotionally competent children, let alone some depressed parents.
You don’t have to go it alone, however. In all cases, children need advocates to promote the implementation of those strategies known to promote healthy youth development and resiliency. If you, as a parent, find that you need help in guiding your child into a well-adjusted and healthy lifestyle and future, you may want to seek that help. Some resources include:
- Pediatric health professionals
- Family or neighborhood groups
- Religious or spiritual leaders
- Homeschool advocates
- Sports coaches
Any one or a combination of the above individuals may be suited to help parents consider the appropriate balance between preparing for the future and living fully in the present through play, child-centered organized activities, and rich parent-child interaction. One way to find that help can be through your local health department. Often, these advocates will have lists of individuals who can help you and your children find direction toward health and balance.