Getting Our Youth More Physically Active

How our kids measure up to physical activity guidelines and why

Sheri Colberg-OchsBy Sheri Colberg-Ochs, PhD

How much exercise are kids actually getting nowadays? Not nearly enough! And adults haven't exactly been the ideal role models, since more than 60 percent of all American adults aren't regularly physically active, and a quarter of them do not exercise at all. In fact, adults may unconsciously contribute even more to the problem.

Consider this — how often do you unthinkingly strap your infant, toddler, or preschooler into a stroller, effectively trapping him or her into a sedentary state? The restraint continues as kids grow older, manifesting whenever they're told to sit — at school, in the car, or at home. Lack of physical activity — particularly vigorous exercise — is likely the most significant contributor to childhood obesity. Combined with too much time spent playing computer games and watching television, insufficient exercise may equal or exceed diet quality as a main contributor to weight gain, particularly among teens.

Looking at the Numbers

According to 2011 national data reported by the CDC, only 29 percent of all high school-aged kids are "physically active," meaning that they participate in the recommended 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. Breaking this statistic down further, girls fared worse than boys. Only 18.5 percent of females met the recommendations, while 38.2 percent of boys did. The data also revealed that high school kids are also much less active than younger children (ages nine to thirteen) during their free time.

Only 31 percent of high school students engage in daily physical education classes at school, with lower grades participating more than seniors. Many schools have removed physical education classes, and others only offer very limited PE classes (once or twice a week rather than daily). There is, however, a glimmer of hope — some schools are beginning to implement the "new" PE, that is, participation in a wide variety of physical activities (including rock climbing) rather than competition, in order to be more inclusive of kids of all sizes.

Contributing Factors

The overall level of inactivity has escalated even more dramatically now that kids are not only less active in school, but are also replacing physically active leisure-time pursuits with sedentary ones like surfing the Net, playing computer and video games, and watching countless hours of television. Fewer kids, on the whole, are participating in after-school sports and other physically active extracurricular pursuits.

Television watching is especially detrimental. Calorie expenditure is even lower while watching television than during other sit-down activities, such as playing board games or reading. Many pediatricians now recommend that youth spend no more than one to two hours a day using TVs and computers combined (although extra time on the computer may be allowed for homework).

Kids who watch a lot of TV are also more likely to have bad eating habits, which are likely driven by the many junk food commercials that target youth. In fact, the amount of TV watched during childhood is directly associated with the risk of high cholesterol, diabetes, poor physical fitness, smoking, and obesity in adulthood.

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Last Modified Date: May 23, 2013

All content on is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.

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