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Physical Exercise for Children

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Dec 8, 2010

Physical inactivity has become a serious problem in the United States. More than half of U.S. adults do not meet recommended levels of moderate physical activity, and one-fourth engage in no leisure time physical activity at all (PHYSICAL ACTIVITY, 1996). Inactivity is more prevalent among those with lower income and education, and, beginning in adolescence, affects females more than males (NIH, 1995; Physical Activity, 1996). A pattern of inactivity, also known as sedentism, begins early in life, making the promotion of physical activity among children imperative. This Digest discusses the importance of and ways to foster activity and exercise in children.

Why is Physical Activity Important?

Physical activity has been defined as "bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure" (Pate, Pratt et al., 1995). There is no debate about the value of physical exertion--regular physical activity has significant health benefits, and even modest increases in energy expenditure can have health-enhancing effects, including:

Reduction in chronic disease risk--hypertension, type 2 diabetes, high blood lipids, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. Even among children and adolescents, physical activity can prevent or delay the development of hypertension and can reduce blood pressure in those young people who already have hypertension (Physical Activity, 1996);

  • Lowered risk of colon cancer;
  • Increase in bone density;
  • Reduction of anxiety, improvement in body image and mood;
  • Development of physical fitness;
  • Promotion of weight control through caloric expenditure. This benefit is of particular importance to children, who are experiencing the same epidemic of overweight as adults.

Childhood Obesity: A Cause For Concern

More children today are overweight or obese than ever before. "Overweight" means that the individual weighs more than is recommended for a given height; when this excess weight is in the form of fat, health problems may develop. "Obesity" is an excess of body fat. In children obesity has been variously defined as

  1.  >=20% over the recommended weight for height;
  2. >=85th percentile for Body Mass Index, which is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by height in meters squared; or
  3. >=25% of weight as fat for boys and >=30% of weight as fat for girls (STRATEGY DEVELOPMENT, 1996).

When the percent fat definition is used, data indicate that 11% of 6-11 year olds and 14% of 12-17 year olds are obese (STRATEGY DEVELOPMENT, 1996), double the prevalence of 30 years ago (CDC, 1996). This is of particular concern because body weight and overfatness in children are significant cardiovascular disease risk factors, and the risk tracks into adolescence and young adulthood if not checked in childhood. In addition, obese children often experience exclusion from social groups and low self-esteem.

Particularly detrimental to health is central (abdominal) body fat, which is linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Studies examining the relationship between physical activity and abdominal fat suggest that those who are more active are less likely to deposit fat in the abdominal area (NIH, 1995). Physical activity is thus a key element in the prevention and treatment of both chronic disease and obesity.

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