Fit for Life

It's not too late for a generation of inactive children to shape up

November 14, 1999|By Deborah Stoudt | Deborah Stoudt,Special to the Sun

Kids plopped in front of the television or computer or furiously playing a video game: It's a typical scene in many American homes. The great outdoors has lost its appeal as technology seduces kids into a sedentary lifestyle.

Inactivity and poor nutrition put them at risk as adults for obesity, heart disease and cancer, says fitness guru Dr. Kenneth Cooper in his book "Fit Kids! The Complete Shape Up Program from Birth through High School" (Broadman & Holman Publishers, $14.99).

"Most of the risky behaviors for these killer diseases begin in childhood," Cooper says. Parents have the power to transform their couch potatoes into lean, active kids.

But parents can no longer rely on physical education classes to whip kids into shape. Few students take physical education five times a week.

Illinois is the only state that requires daily physical education from kindergarten to 12th grade. In some Maryland middle schools, physical education is an elective. In high schools, the state requires only half a credit (one semester) of physical education to graduate.

The good news is that some high schools in the Baltimore area make students fulfill the physical education requirement by taking a Fitness for Life course that teaches lifelong activity.

Even so, area physical education directors say the state requirements are inadequate because children need activity. Meanwhile, gyms and YMCAs are becoming more family friendly.

"We've made home so physically entertaining, they don't go outside," says Carl Gabbard, president of the National Association for Sports and Physical Education and a professor at Texas A&M. "The average kid watches 25 to 40 hours a week of television. That doesn't include the two hours they may have spent on the computer. That's time they could have been outside."

More than one in five children ages 6 to 17 is overweight. Obesity is linked to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer, according to the National Institute for Health Statistics. Physical inactivity and poor diet account for about 300,000 deaths a year, says a Surgeon General's report.

All that underscores the need for parents to get involved in their children's physical activity. "Children should be involved in at least 30 minutes of moderate activity every day, although 60 minutes is even better," Cooper says. Physical activity not only reduces the risk of heart disease, but studies show it improves learning and mental health, experts say.

"Physically fit children perform at more optimal levels cognitively," says Gabbard. "That doesn't mean they're smarter, but they get the best out of themselves when they're physically fit. It really improves their ability to learn and staves off fatigue."

Knowing that, Cooper says, parents should talk with their children about the importance of exercise and fitness and then create a family fitness program. "It's important to help your children choose activities they enjoy doing," Cooper says. Fun things may be taking a family walk or hike, riding bicycles or inline skating, joining a sports team or getting a membership at a fitness center.

Parents should be flexible, Cooper says. If Dad wants to jog and Joey wants to play catch, Dad might suggest that Joey jog around the block with him, and then they play catch. At first, the goal should be a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes of activity two or three days a week, gradually building to four or five days a week.

While being a role model is important, parents don't have to be responsible for every activity, Cooper says. Schools and physical education should play a role in keeping kids active, experts say. Adolescents and teens tend to be more inactive with each year of high school and fewer enroll in physical education classes from freshman to senior year, according to a Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

To counteract that, Charles Corbin, professor of exercise science at Arizona State University, and his colleague Ruth Lindsey published the Fitness for Life textbook in 1978 with the idea that teaching young people lifelong physical activities will make them active as adults.

Maryland doesn't require high school students to take a Fitness for Life course, but some high schools do. The course includes classroom sessions that teach physical activity, fitness principles and consumer tips. Kids assess their fitness, plan their personal fitness program, set goals and monitor their progress.

"The goal is to help students become independent in their physical activity rather than dependent on others," says Corbin. "The HELP [Health for Everyone for a Lifetime on a Personal basis] philosophy is the basis for the program."

High school students in Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel and Harford counties must take a Fitness for Life-type course to graduate. In Baltimore City and Carroll County, lifetime fitness activities are included in the physical education programs, but they don't offer or require a Fitness for Life course.

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