Teens today are less fit than kids were 15 years ago. Fitness has never been at a high level for everyone (since maybe the pioneer days, anyway) but it’s getting worse and worse. It’s time to sit up and take notice.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data last week that shows abysmally low levels of “cardiorespiratory” fitness among kids aged 12 to 15. Cardiorespiratory fitness refers to heart and lung capacity necessary to walk briskly, go up flights of stairs, and stay active for reasonable amounts of time without getting out of breath. Take a look at your child. How easily can he run and move about without getting winded?
At the last time these data were collected, in 1999/2000, 52% of young teens demonstrated “adequate” levels of cardiorespiratory fitness. Nearly 65% of boys back then had an acceptable level of fitness level, along with 41% of girls. Just over half for boys and girls together wasn’t great but it was far better than the data today. This year, only 50% of boys aged 12 to 15 met adequate targets and just 34% of girls did. This means that your son has only a 50-50 likelihood of being physically capable and healthy and your daughter almost surely is not physically capable. Two-thirds of girls are in less than adequate cardiorespiratory health.
This is shocking. It has implications not only for everyday activities your child might participate in as a teen – limiting her stamina and enjoyment of sports, recreational fun, and just getting around town. But it also has implications for children’s future health. Physical ability peaks in the mid-20s and gradually diminishes from there. If your child’s physical peak is low to start with, his prospects for being healthy in his 30s and 40s, avoiding a heart attack, and staying trim and vigorous as an adult fall off sharply.
If you aren’t worried you should be. Kids today sit more, ride more, and move around less than they did when you were a teen. What can you do to reverse this trend?
- Get your kids moving. Make certain your preteen and young teen children have a sport they participate in regularly. It can be as simple as daily brisk walks, solitary activities like running, yoga, or swimming, organized sports of all kinds, including karate, fencing, tennis, and Ultimate, as well as traditional team sports like basketball, soccer, and softball. There’s an activity for every taste. Help your child find hers.
- Get your kids onto their feet. Instead of driving them everywhere, encourage your children to walk to where they want to go, bike or board there. If they’re taking the bus, let them walk to the bus stop. Activity is a habit and so is sitting, Get your kids up and about.
- When you do drive your kids, park the car and walk from there. Find a nice, shady place to leave your vehicle and walk from one location to the next, without driving to each new destination. You and your child could walk several blocks in a day of shopping.
- Start early. Waiting until your middle school child is already weak and breathless makes changing behavior much more difficult. Keep your young children moving too. Remember they get a lot of sitting still during the school day. When they say they’re “too tired” to play outdoors they probably mean they need a push.
- Play special attention to girls’ activity. Physical fitness is important for all children but physical prowess is less valued in girls. When only one-third of girls meet “adequate” levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, you know that there’s not an expectation among girls themselves for much activity. Keep your girl active now and you’ll keep her healthier her entire life.
Your preteen isn’t “slowing down” when he loses interest in outdoor play. Don’t accept inactivity as something normal and ordinary. Instead, recognize it for what it is: a threat to your children’s health.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.