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Six in 10 American children lack aerobic fitness, Heart Association says

Children who lack such fitness are at increased risk of developing heart disease and stroke when they become adults.

children playing
Research has found that children who are fit tend to have fewer incidents of mental health problems and a higher sense of self-worth and life satisfaction.
Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Almost 60 percent of American youth lack cardiorespiratory fitness, a key measure of physical fitness and overall health, according to a statement released Monday by the American Heart Association (AHA).

Needless to say, that’s a troubling figure. Cardiorespiratory fitness — also known as aerobic fitness — refers to the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to muscles during physical activity. As the AHA statement points out, children who lack such fitness are at increased risk of developing heart disease and stroke when they become adults. They also tend to develop those cardiovascular diseases, as well as type 2 diabetes, at an earlier age than their aerobically fit peers.

Cardiorespiratory fitness does more than help children ward off future chronic diseases, however. It also offers them immediate benefits. Research has found that children who are fit tend to have fewer incidents of mental health problems and a higher sense of self-worth and life satisfaction. They also do better academically.

Yet America’s youth have become less and less aerobically fit in recent years. A 2014 study found that only half of U.S. boys and a third of U.S. girls aged 12 to 15 years old could pass the test for cardiorespiratory fitness. Those figures were down considerably from just a decade or so earlier. The share of boys who were aerobically fit fell from 65 percent in 1999 to 50 percent in 2012. Among girls, the numbers dropped from 41 percent to 34 percent.

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The study also found that only 54 percent of young people whose weight fell in the “normal” range were aerobically fit. Among children who were overweight, that figure dropped to 30 percent. And among children who were obese, it was even lower: 20 percent.

Possible causes

The reasons children’s fitness is worsening is not well understood, the authors of the AHA statement point out. A decline in physical activity appears to be a major (and obvious) contributor, however. Overall, children are spending less time exercising and playing physically active games than they used to do. It’s less clear that increased sedentary behavior (separate from decreased physical activity) is a factor. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, studies showed that children were spending more time watching TV, playing video games and engaging in other “screen time” activities than in the past. But, as the AHA statement notes, a recent meta-analysis suggested this was a greater problem for the cardiorespiratory fitness of young children than of teens.

Social, economic and environmental factors are also likely contributors to the decline in young people’s cardiorespiratory fitness. Research has found that physical activity tends to be lesser  among children living in low-income urban areas, possibly because they have less access to safe places to play sports or exercise. In addition, schools that serve children in poorer neighborhoods often reduce or eliminate physical education or outdoor recess due to budget shortages.

This is not only an American problem. One recent study reported that children living in countries with a wide income gap between their rich and poor residents had poorer cardiorespiratory fitness.

What parents can do

“Cardiorespiratory fitness is crucial for good heart and overall health both in childhood and as children become adults,” says Dr. Geetha Rahuveer, one of the authors of the AHA statement and professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri, in a released statement. “We’ve got to get kids moving and engaged in regular physical activity.”

“The best activity is the activity a child or teen likes and that is sustained for a longer period,” she adds. “The habits they learn when they’re young will directly benefit their health as they become adults.”

Getting children and teens engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity for the recommended minimum of an hour a day is a particular challenge during the current pandemic. Schools have been closed, most youth sports leagues have cancelled their programs, and kids are unable to get together for informal “pick-up” ball games.

So it’s up to parents. The AHA offers these tips to get the whole family moving more at home:

  • Make active chore cards. Let each family member draw a card each day with a different active task that needs to be done. Cleaning up after dinner, walking the dog, taking the trash out, folding laundry and unloading the dishwasher are all good ways to get your family up off the couch – and get the chores done.
  • Clear some space, put on some music, and take a dance break! It can re-energize a study session, lazy Sunday or game night. Let each person take a turn as DJ so everyone’s favorites get played.
  • Put the screens on hold. Instead of heading right for the TV or game console after dinner, make that family activity time. Take a walk, practice a sport, or play a game of hide-and-seek.
  • Tune into fitness during TV time. Walk or jog in place or on a treadmill, lift weights, or do yoga while you watch your favorite shows. Break up a TV binge with a bit of activity between episodes. Or challenge each other to see who can do the most burpees, push-ups or jumping jacks during commercial breaks.
  • Shake up your family’s routine. Join your kids for a bike ride or shoot some hoops before starting on homework and chores. You’ll all feel better and think better.
  • Play actively with pets. Throw a ball or stick for the dog to fetch. Lead the cat on a string chase around the house.
  • Include active games in family game night, like Twister, charades and hide-and-seek.
  • Keep a list of kid-friendly activities handy for when you hear “I’m bored.”
  • Choose toys for your kids that encourage physical activity, such as balls, skateboards, hula hoops and jump ropes.
  • Keep exercise equipment out where it can easily be used for a quick workout.
  • Instead of always having the TV on for company or background noise, play music that inspires you to get up and move.
  • When the weather’s nice, take a walk or bike ride around your neighbourhood.
  • Get your garden on. Gardening, mowing and yard work are a great way to get active outdoors. No yard? No problem! Try container gardening or a local community garden.
  • After a heavy rain, put on some old clothes, grab some towels, and take the kids out for good old-fashioned mud fight.

FMI: The AHA statement was published in the journal Circulation.