Nutrition Column – Encourage Youth to Engage in Active Play

Overweight and obesity among children and adolescents continues to rise. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the proportion of young people who are overweight has more than tripled in the last 30 years.

There are many contributors to the issue, but a major one is lack of regular physical activity. Most children start out very active – witness any toddler. With age, though, comes a decrease in activity. By the time they’re in high school, only 19 percent of young people report being physically active for 20 minutes or more, five days a week and 14 percent report no recent physical activity at all. In schools, physical education classes also have seen a downward spiral, from 42 percent of high school students enrolled in physical education classes in 1991 to only 25 percent in 1995, the last time this study was conducted.

Regular physical activity is one of the keys to a lifetime of good health. Besides helping to control weight, activity tones the body and helps build lean muscle. It also helps build and maintain healthy bones and joints. Further, it helps reduce feelings of depression and anxiety and promotes psychological well-being.

Physical activity doesn’t need to be competitive to be enjoyed. In fact, many children would be well served if adults focused less on winning in sports and more on just being out there having a good time and enjoying the fresh air.

What can be done to turn the pendulum and promote greater activity among our youth? There are many different things, starting with a commitment to promote activity at the individual, family, school and community levels. Here are some recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Take time daily to be active with your children. Go for walks and bike rides together. Plan family activities on the weekends, like hiking, bicycle riding, swimming, playing tennis, etc., that cause everyone to work up a sweat. Encourage your children to play outside and participate in after-school activities rather than watching television or playing video games.
  • Work with your school and education board to ensure that they are able to provide quality, preferably daily, K-12 physical education classes.
  • At the community and K-12 levels, create opportunities for physical activities that are enjoyable, promote adolescents’ and young adults’ confidence in their ability to be physically active and that involve friends, peers and parents.
  • At the community level, encourage parents and teachers to be physically active themselves and to serve as role models for youth on the value of activity.
  • Provide access to school buildings and community facilities that enable safe participation in physical activity.
  • Work as a community to provide sidewalks and safe parks where children can walk and play. Encourage children to walk to school and walk with them if safety is a concern.
  • Encourage health-care providers to talk routinely to adolescents and young adults about the importance of incorporating physical activity into their lives.