Childhood is often remembered as a fun-filled time, with children riding bikes, running outside, and playing with friends. Increasingly, this is not the case.

The amount of time that children are spending outside is decreasing in direct proportion to the amount of time they are spending inside in front of a screen. Today’s child in the U.S. spends over seven hours in front of a screen (TV, computer, or videogame) on average every day. While some of this screen time can be beneficial with regard to learning and completing homework, there is increasing evidence that playing outside and exercising in general are crucial to the healthy development and well-being of children.

The Institute of Biomedicine at the University of Eastern Finland carried out an aptly named study that showed a link between screen time and increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and vascular disease in six to eight-year-old children. The Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children Study (PANIC), measured 468 children and evaluated their health and its relationship to heavy electronic media use from 2007 to 2009. Researchers found that lack of physical activity or low levels of unstructured activity were directly linked to an increased risk of developing the two conditions above. They also found that children with low levels of unstructured activity and heavy screen use were likely to eat poorly or infrequently. Because prevention of Type 2 diabetes is best started in childhood, this study is alarming and further highlights the importance of exercise for children.

But it’s not just the body that suffers when kids don’t get enough exercise.

In a new issue of Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, researchers examined the neurological consequences of lack of physical activity in childhood. They found that decreased physical activity in childhood negatively affected cognitive function and academic performance, an ironic result as schools eliminate physical education in favor of high-stakes testing. Of the over 55 million children who are enrolled in a public school in the U.S., only 30% of them are participating in daily physical education classes.

This runs directly counter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines recommending a minimum of 60 minutes of daily physical activity. This issue of Monographs analyzed studies where children were specifically assigned levels of activities as well as studies where random fitness levels were present. Using these two types of studies controls for other factors that might influence the findings, such as which types of children might be more or less physically active.

Not only did physically inactive children do poorly in academics, but physically active kids outperformed their peers by leaps and bounds (literally and figuratively). Physically active children have longer attention spans and are able to better concentrate on the task at hand. Physically active children develop larger brain volumes in the basal ganglia and hippocampus areas, making them more mentally agile than their physically inactive peers.

Dr. Charles Hillman, professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and lead author of this issue of Monographs says that:

“[T]hese results point to the important potential of approaches focusing on physical activity for strengthening children’s brain health and educational attainment. It is important for state governments and school administrators to consider this evidence and promote physical activity in the school setting, which is where children spend much of their time.”

Researchers recommend at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity, but what can you do if your child is not getting physical education in school? Life is busy with homework and other activities, but physical activity and play are important not only for the health of your children but also as a stress reliever and bonding time for the whole family.

Go fly a kite

Or dance in the living room. Researchers recommend intermittent physical activity, which means you don’t need to be running or biking for 60 minutes straight. Physical activity should be enjoyable so you are more likely to do it, and kids love to play with their parents. Take time between work and dinner to play around in the park or jitterbug in the backyard.

Walk the dog

The family dog can be a good indicator of a family’s fitness. A chunky dog needs more walking, and your family may need more walking, too. Take the dog for a long walk after dinner and catch up on the day’s events, or plan for the next day. Walking in the dark is sometimes a good way to connect with teenagers, too. They run on a different biological clock and tend to be more willing to open up and talk after the sun goes down.

Plan a fun run with the kids

Sign your whole family up for a 5K, a color run, or a mud run, then let your kids set the training schedule and stick to it. Having a goal can make sticking to exercise easier, especially if it is a public one. Look for holiday-themed runs like zombie runs or turkey trots, too.

Join a team

If your child is interested in joining a team sport, sign them up and then use that sport as an opportunity for physical activity. Playing soccer? Pass the ball in the backyard. Basketball fan? Visit the local gym (many schools have open gym nights) and take a few shots or practice dribbling up and down the court. If you are skilled in any of the sports your child shows interest in, take the opportunity to coach for their first few years if you can. Then involve them in trying out your practice plans as a way to incorporate more daily activity.

Planning more physical activity for your kids needn’t be expensive or time-consuming. If you have time constraints due to work or your kids stay in after-school care, make sure they are in a program that keeps the screen time to a minimum and offers opportunities to run and play after sitting in a classroom all day. Swap play date times with their friends’ parents, alternating who takes the kids on a hike or a bike ride every week. Be creative and look at this as an opportunity to get to know your kids better and hang on to their childhood for just a little bit longer.

What are your favorite ways to stay active with your kids?

Image by Korean Resource Center via Flickr


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