Family Matters

The Older Kids Get, The Less They Move

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Every parent knows that overscheduling kids is a no-no. Not only is it exhausting for parents, who must cart those little people from place to place, but kids need time to relax. Or do they?

A new study in Pediatrics finds that children exercise less as they get older. In one year, British researchers saw exercise levels fall by 4.6% in a group of 9- to 10-year-olds. Girls were more sedentary than boys, as were wealthier kids and those with more body fat. Vacations and weekends — two full days just waiting to be filled with old-fashioned, pick-up basketball games and bike rides with friends — were the worst.

Just under a 5% drop may not sound alarming, but if that’s a pattern, it doesn’t bode well for health down the road.

“The extent of these decreases over one year would have significant implications for these children if decreases continued into adulthood,” write the authors, from the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit in Cambridge and the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia. Between the ages of 10 and 17, it could translate to an increase of 90 more minutes each day spent pursuing the life of a couch potato.

The researchers scrutinized physical activity levels of 844 boys and girls in 2007, noting their weight and BMI, as well as their socioeconomic status. For three days at the beginning of the study, the kids wore accelerometers to chart their daily activity by sensing motion. Fast-forward 12 months, and they did it again. (More on What Kids Should Know About Money At 9, 13, 18 and 23)

When the study began, 70.4% of children got the recommended amount of physical activity; one year later, 65.8% met the criteria. Kids should strive for at least an hour of heart-pumping exercise every day — think swimming, biking or running. (Thoroughly working out thumbs by texting does not count.)

So what’s to be done? For starters, don’t cut funding for P.E. classes in schools, says Jim Pivarnik, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Health at Michigan State University and past president of the American College of Sports Medicine. If, as the British study shows, kids are most active during the school day, it’s crucial to ensure rigorous physical education programs.

Yet physical education is hardly as sexy a topic as obesity these days, although numerous studies show aerobic fitness is more important than body weight in terms of cardiovascular health. “It’s better to be fit and overweight than normal weight and inactive,” says Pivarnik. “Everyone gets excited about obesity, which is great. But if you look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, their No. 1 problem is not obesity; it’s physical activity.”

To combat the decline in activity, the study authors emphasize the need to encourage girls and rich kids to get out there and move. They also advise increased activity on weekends and after-school, which, of course, directly contradicts the child development experts who recommend an abundance of free time.

I sided with the study authors and responded to their research by signing my son up for a soccer skills academy that my husband and I had previously decided wasn’t really necessary. It was pricey and, we reasoned, we wanted to give him more hang-out time. It may still be unnecessary, but at least it will get him out of the house and exercising during the least active time of the day. Luckily for him, he loves soccer.

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