Fitness news is not looking good for U.S. kids. An international research team that studied and ranked the aerobic fitness level of children from 50 countries found that U.S. kids are at the back of the pack.
The results, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in September 2016, are the largest study to date on worldwide fitness levels among children. Kids who are aerobically fit tend to be healthier, and healthy children are more likely to grow up to be healthy adults. So looking at aerobic fitness in kids on a worldwide scale can help to provide important information. If there are countries where kids are aerobically fit, they can provide insights and help other countries to improve fitness levels.
The study used the 20 meter shuttle test (beep test) and collected data from 1.1 million kids ages 9 to 17 years old, from 50 countries. The beep test is a well-accepted field test that is commonly used around the world to test a child’s aerobic fitness capacity.
- The top five “fittest countries” included: Tanzania, Iceland, Estonia, Norway and Japan
- Canada placed 19 out of 50* ** The United States placed 47 out of 50**
Boys were found to outperform girls, and the best performances were from children who lived in Africa and Central-Northern Europe. These countries typically have kids who run, walk, or bike to school. Countries from South America fared worst, possibly due to socio-economic variables that may affect the health of the children. Country-specific income inequality correlated to less optimal aerobic performance.
So how do we explain the poor performance of children from the U.S., one of the richest nations in the world?
Kids in the U.S. sit all day long. They are consumed from a very young age by tech devices and media opportunities. Unfortunately, some parents expose their children to television programming and iPad play at very young ages, and these moments can set kids up to want more and more time sitting and watching and playing. Television can also become a “babysitter.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) felt compelled to release new digital media guidelines to parents of young children. The AAP recognized that children under age 3 were spending too much time watching television and using devices like iPads. Viewing time translates into sedentary time. This sitting time increases as kids move into middle school and teen years. So it’s not surprising that our kids have scored low on aerobic fitness tests. They’re not moving a whole lot!!
There is less physical education in schools as well, so kids are mostly sitting during the school day. Most kids don’t ride bikes or walk to school here in the U.S. Many neighborhoods are not safe for afterschool outdoor play. In households where both parents work, kids typically come home from school and do homework and then play video games or use social media for hours.
U.S. child and adult obesity rates are also among the highest in the world, and rates have not leveled off. Kids with weight issues tend to shy away from sports, which puts them at risk of being aerobically challenged.
Results from this survey should be a wake-up call for parents and public health officials. Lack of fitness in childhood is a risk factor for poor aerobic fitness in adulthood. Alone and combined with obesity, it’s also a risk factor for a higher risk of developing prediabetes, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other health conditions.
Here are some tips to help get your kids moving and enjoying fitness:
Make it a family affair: Parents need to talk the talk and walk the walk, as in exercise to set an example for their kids.
Make it fun: Kids respond to fun activities so make exercise all about fun in their young years.
Have them try different sports at a young age: From Little League baseball to neighborhood soccer, provide your kids at a very young age (boys and girls) access to different types of play.
Encourage playtime after school before kids start their homework: It’s important for kids to exercise after sitting for so many hours at school. They will also focus better on their homework if they “work off pent up energy.”
Make it a competition: Most kids love to compete so let them win small prizes or accumulate points towards a special treat (non-food).
Find moments to talk about the benefits of movement and exercise: Young children can easily understand the “Popeye” affect that exercise has on their bodies and brain so take opportunities to highlight the benefits.
Move during TV ads: If you have kids exercise, dance, or get up and move around during the advertisement moments, they will accumulate a good amount of physical activity while watching 30 or 60 minutes of a program.