Get Children Hooked on Fitness for Life

Janice Robinson of Cary has three daughters who have always been active in sports such as soccer, competitive jump rope and track, but Robinson wondered whether her children would continue to participate in fitness activities as adults. So she was pleased to learn recently that her college-age daughter continues to jump rope for fun and also just doesn’t feel right unless she gets some exercise each day.

“I really think that my girls will always do something to keep them physically active,” Robinson says. “They are so accustomed to it, I don’t know that they’ll stop, and I’m happy about that, because what better habit can you form than exercising?”

Having children who build and maintain an active lifestyle is indeed something to be thankful for, since about 35 percent of youth are not very active. Girls are less active than boys, according to a 2001 youth risk behavior survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The survey showed that while 65 percent of students across the country participate more than four days a week in activities that made them sweat and breathe hard, boys were significantly more likely than girls to engage in adequate physical activity.

And as kids got older, they moved less. Activity levels declined during each year of high school (with a high of 71.9 percent in ninth grade and a low of 55.5 percent in 12th grade). Exercise boosts brain performance Recent research also shows that exercise keeps more than muscles in shape. It also helps the brain function at top capacity.

In a recently released book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John J. Ratey, M.D., touts the benefits of exercise on chemicals in the brain, contending that exercise can beat stress, lift mood, fight memory loss, and sharpen intellect by giving the brain a boost. He cites research showing exercise is the best prevention for diseases like Alzheimer’s and the symptoms of anxiety, aging, menopause and depression.

As for children, the book highlights a 2007 scientific article published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology that looked at the relationship between physical fitness and academic performance in 259 third and fifth graders. Children in the study who were aerobically active performed significantly better academically. Aerobic exercise and body mass index were directly related to achievement in reading and math.

Connecting children to physical activity

How can parents, coaches and educators encourage children to participate in fitness for life? There are four keys to encouraging lifelong fitness, according to Fran Cleland, president of the National Association of Sports and Physical Education, a nonprofit organization of grades K-12 physical education teachers, coaches, athletic directors, athletic trainers, researchers and college faculty. The four main components are: physical education and health classes, recess, after-school programs, and a variety of family-oriented activities that promote an active lifestyle.

“Provide a child with many possibilities so they have a foundation in a variety of movement forms,” says Cleland, who is also a professor of kinesiology at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

Competition versus recreation

Cleland doesn’t buy into the current focus on a single competitive sport as a necessary, or even desirable, ingredient for promoting lifelong fitness. “Competition can put some kids at risk [of avoiding physical activity] because not all children have the personalities and that type of drive to achieve in a competitive environment,” she says.

If a child enjoys a competitive sport, support him or her in that venture, Cleland says, but supplement with less-structured, family-friendly activities such as hiking, biking, walking or swimming. Cleland points out that most adults participate in aerobic exercise like walking, swimming, running or biking, not organized sports.

Find activities that fit

The Triangle area has a wealth of competitive and recreational sports available through city parks and recreation departments, leagues and other nonprofit organizations, and private businesses. Choices include basketball, baseball, football, golf, swimming and hockey. The area also has numerous fitness facilities and child-focused activity centers such as skating rinks, bowling alleys, ice rinks and gymnastics centers.

Indoor rock climbing is a relatively new activity that all ages can enjoy. On a recent Saturday at Vertical Edge Climbing Center in Durham, children and adults were improving fitness while having fun.

“It’s a fun sport, and it’s one literally that just about anybody can do,” says owner Hobie Wright. “We don’t gauge success by getting to the top. For some people, getting six feet off the ground is success, and that’s all good.”

Wright says children who may not be interested in other sports enjoy the challenge of indoor climbing. The fact that it also is good for them physically is not something the adults always tell the kids, he jokes.

One of the children at the center that day, Mohammed Karim, 11, was pleased with his progress on the wall. His mother, Ruqayyah Rasheed, says Karim doesn’t play other sports because of his asthma, so finding an indoor physical activity was a good option.

Steve Werner, owner of Dreamsports Center in Apex, says children get swept into competition so early that he likes to promote Dreamsports as a place where everyone can enjoy physical activity. “Our indoor soccer leagues for adults and children are designed for people who just want to come out and get some exercise and play,” Werner says.

“The most important thing is to introduce kids to different sports and make sure they get exercise and start enjoying being active,” says Cameron Moore, a United States Tennis Association high-performance coach at MacGregor Downs Country Club in Cary.

Another option is to use the very technology that has helped create a sedentary generation to inspire kids to exercise.

Some students at Salem Middle School in Apex wear pedometers to track their weekly progress in fitness and nutrition. Gene Daniels, the school’s athletic director, also encourages them to use the Nike + iPod Sport Kid which allows a sensor in the shoe to connect with an iPod to track heart rate and other data from a workout.

Davis says this generation loves to see those instant results onscreen. In fact, the word exer-gaming has arisen from the popularity of video games linked to exercise bikes and the growth of virtual gaming.

Whether it’s exer-gaming or running around the block, if it creates lifelong fitness habits, then all children are the winners. Carol McGarrahan is a Triangle-based health writer.

Find area fitness programs, classes, sports leagues and clubs online under our Directories & Resources.

How Much Should Children Exercise?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recommends children ages 6 to 17 spend at least one hour each day being physically active. A large body of scientific research has confirmed the health benefits of exercise for adults, and DHHS has found strong evidence of the following benefits for children:
* Improved cardio-respiratory endurance and muscular fitness.
* Favorable body composition.
* Improved bone health.
* Improved cardiovascular and metabolic health biomarkers.

Recess and Physical Education: A N.C. Report Aims to Raise the Bar

North Carolina had the fifth highest rate of overweight children in the nation in 2006, and many children are not receiving the recommended 30 to 60 minutes of daily physical education recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to data from a 2001 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics, only 24 percent of elementary students across the country had physical education 30 minutes to an hour five days a week.

A report released in January 2009 by the North Carolina Task Force on Preventing Childhood Obesity included a recommendation to increase the frequency, duration and intensity of physical activity in schools. The task force addressed a wide range of childhood obesity issues, including physical education and recess in schools.

Fran Cleland, president of the National Association of Sports and Physical Education, says the national focus on “No Child Left Behind” legislation has pressured some schools to forsake recess in favor of more curriculum time.

The North Carolina State Board of Education Healthy Active Student policy states students in kindergarten through grade eight should have a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily during school hours.

“The importance of integrating physical activity during the school day is critical. Furthermore, unstructured play is critical for brain develop-ment and for fitness development,” says Paula Hudson Collins, senior policy advisor for the North Carolina State Board of Education, who served on the task force.

Does your child’s school follow the N.C. State Board of Education Healthy Active Policy?

Physical Education
a. “……Elementary schools should consider the benefits of and move toward having 150 minutes per week with a certified physical education teacher throughout the 180-day school year. Middle schools should consider the benefits of and move toward having 225 minutes per week of Healthful Living Education with certified health and physical education teachers throughout the 180-day school year.
b. The physical education course shall be the environment in which students learn, practice and receive assessment on developmentally appropriate motor skills, social skills…..and foster support for being physically active.”

Recess and Physical Activity
a. Structured/unstructured recess and other physical activity….. shall not be taken away from students as a form of punishment. In addition, severe and/or inappropriate exercise may not be used as a form of punishment for students.
b. A minimum of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity shall be provided by schools for all K-8 students daily through a regular physical education class and/or through activities such as recess, dance, classroom energizers, or other curriculum based physical education activity programs. However, such use of this time should complement and not substitute for the physical education program.
c. The physical activity required by this section must involve physical exertion of at least a moderate to vigorous intensity level and for a duration sufficient to provide a significant health benefit to students.

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