The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be physically active for at least 60 minutes per day, although they stress that the activity doesn’t have to be consecutive. Is that not the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard? As long as the time they spend walking across the living room and back to go to the bathroom or play video games adds up to an hour, that’s considered OK. It’s no wonder nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are overweight or obese.
I know this may sound obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway: children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to be fat. According to the National Environmental Education Foundation, kids living within two-thirds of a mile of a park with a playground are five times more likely to have higher levels of physical activity and weigh less. In addition, children exposed to nature can reduce their stress levels by as much as a third. It only takes a 20-minute walk outside to help children with ADHD concentrate better (believe it or not, you don’t have to just drug them).
With all that being said, it’s hard to imagine why so many of our kids are overweight when there are more than 20,000 parks and 11,000 playgrounds totaling over 1.5 million acres in cities across the U.S. When my son was little, I’d put him in the kid seat on the back of my English racer and ride him over to the park to play all the time. I don’t know why more people with kids don’t try moving closer to areas with parks nearby.
What I really don’t understand is why kids these days don’t want to go outside. When I was young, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was be in the house. That’s where your parents could tell you what you could and couldn’t do. Instead, I’d always be outside running, riding my bike, hiking, and playing ball with friends. And it wasn’t called exercise – it was called playing. Nowadays, kids have Wii and Xbox, and they need special shoes and other electronic equipment in order to be active.
I think one of the reasons kids aren’t as active is that a lot of parents are either too busy or just too lazy to pay attention to what their kids are doing, where they are doing it, and who they are doing it with. They also take their children to sedentary “mommy and me” groups where they sit there and put one block on top of the other. Whatever happened to kids going outside, running, pushing, and falling down laughing? Parents need to stop being so freaked out about the possibility of their child getting a boo-boo. My theory is if your kid turns 18 with no scars or broken bones, you have been too controlling (I can’t tell you how relieved I was when my son broke his arm when he was 17).
Furthermore, a recent study suggests that your child’s social network of friends can greatly influence how much they move their butts. The journal Pediatrics conducted a study of 81 kids between the ages of 5 and 12 for 12 weeks in an after-school program. They interviewed the kids about who they were hanging out with the most and equipped them with devices called accelerometers to measure their activity levels. What the researchers found was the children’s activity levels increased or decreased depending on who they were hanging out with. If a child’s friend was sedentary, then he or she would also be inactive. When given the choice to keep their activity levels the same or change them to match those of their pals, the children were six times more likely to match their friends.
The takeaway from this study is that kids are influenced by their peers, even in how much they exercise. You need to arrange play dates and encourage your children to have relationships with kids who are active. Even if your child tends to be sedentary on his or her own, having friends that like to play will make them more likely to go out, run around, ride bikes, and do normal kid stuff.
As parents, you need to get your kids playing outside. Limit their electronic media use to an hour a day. Don’t let them sit there staring at a screen all day with hyperactive thumbs – it’s like a scene out of a scary movie.