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Kids Now 15% Less Fit Than Their Parents Were — Here's What I'm Doing About It

kids fitness

Photo credit: Heather Neal

There are a thousand reasons to decide when to have kids. (Spoiler alert: it’s never when you’re “ready” — no such thing.) When my husband and I started thinking about it, we felt a little young to even be talking about kids, but when we started doing the math it felt like we were already behind. We wanted more than one kid, but we didn’t want them super close together in age. It didn’t take long to figure out that meant we could be in our mid-30s and still be having kids. Being that 35 is considered advanced maternal age, we figured it was time to get going, or else we would never be able to keep up with our kids — we’d be too old and too tired. I’ve heard it over and over from older moms; they’re just too tired to keep up with energetic, active kids.

But we’re assuming our kids would be energetic and active, and that we wouldn’t be. While that sounds completely logical, for the first time in decades (or longer), parents are more fit than their kids. For once this isn’t just an American problem; it’s a worldwide decrease in physical activity among kids.

A study out of the University of South Australia unveiled the startling revelation that kids don’t run as fast or as far as kids the same age 30 years ago. Compared to their parents, it now takes kids an average of a minute and a half longer to run a mile. The American Heart Association recommends kids get at least an hour of exercise a day, but only a third of kids meet that goal. The study showed that heart-related fitness has decreased 15% since 1975 — that’s 5% per decade.

Why the big change? Is it video games? Laziness? Unsafe neighborhoods? The economy? So many schools have fallen subject to the economic downfall that struck a few years ago, meaning they’ve had to make cuts for “unnecessary” activities, such as gym. That leaves recess as the only outlet for physical activity during the school day, where kids spend a majority of their time. I don’t know about you, but while I did spend time climbing on the jungle gym and swinging on the monkey bars during recess, I also spent an ample amount of time sitting in the field doing absolutely nothing. By the time middle school rolled around, my most active recess activity was probably tetherball. You know, the one where you stand in the same place and let the ball come to you. Lots of heart-pumping activity going on there, huh? And is there even recess in high school? There sure wasn’t in mine. We only had 20 minutes for lunch as it was! When were we supposed to squeeze in that hour of vigorous activity? I was lucky enough to get mine during after-school sports, but not everyone is interested in those — and those who are may not have access to them.

The head of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move fight-against-obesity campaign, Sam Kass, states, “We are currently facing the most sedentary generation of children in our history.” That’s not something to be taken lightly. It sure makes me think twice about the recent habit I’ve created with my almost-2-year-old of snuggling in front of Disney Junior in the wee hours of the morning because I tell him it’s too dark and cold to play outside. What kind of message is that sending? I suppose my lack of gym visits in the past couple months doesn’t set the best example either. If we can’t rely on schools to provide physical activity, we most definitely have to take that responsibility on as parents.

While my child is still fairly young, that doesn’t need to be an excuse for me to not start encouraging exercise. Despite our morning cartoon ritual, we spend most of our time outdoors. My not-yet-2-year-old always asks to go on walks and is constantly telling me, “I running, I running.” Now is when habits start forming, and it’s time to be a role model. Time to take him running with me; to show him what I do at the gym; to play with him on the playground instead of just watching. I hope to continue to do my best to encourage him to play games that include jumping, and racing, and chasing balls; to teach him that physical activity isn’t a chore, it’s fun!

How do you encourage your kids to be physically active?

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