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Perhaps it is only fair to start with a trip down memory lane! Remember the good old days of free play where children climbed trees, slid down the muddy slopes or flew kites? They even swam in small rivers without parent supervision!

These physical activities are long gone and have been replaced by a vast collection of static toys and computing gadgets. The new ‘contraptions’ require that children sit down to play!

Fortunately, starting with Generation Z at the turn of the Century, and now Generation Alpha, inside the 21st Century, the matter of physical activity for children and the youth is receiving renewed interest and concern, and for very good reasons.

It probably will not bring back those glory days, but somehow will remind parents what their children are ‘truly’ missing and how physical inactivity can ruin their physical wellbeing.


1. The Importance of Physical Activity for Children

The definition of physical activity according to World Health Organization (WHO):

Physical activity is any bodily movement produced by the skeletal muscles that uses energy. This includes sports, exercise and other activities such as playing, walking, doing household chores or gardening.

The art of physical wellness can be grouped loosely into three categories: active play, organized sport and active transportation.

Active play is the unstructured mode of playtime for children where they crawl, run around, jump, climb trees, dance or even swim. This can happen indoors or outdoors.

Organized sport is a structured mode of play which may include set rules and involves more than just one child or youth. Could be football, netball, baseball, or any other related form of activity outdoors or at school.

Active transportation involves body powered forms of movement such as walking, jogging, running, cycling, canoeing and skating. This kind of physical activity for children is usually done outdoors.

Physical activity helps them enhance cognitive, physical, social and creative skills way beyond what parents actually comprehend.

As per WHO Global recommendations on physical activity,

Children should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily.’(MVPA)

Climbing trees made sense in the 20th Century

This should be done for both physical and mental health, and for cognitive and academic excellence.

While 60 minutes looks achievable for any child, the reality is, many do not get to beat the time frame.

Listed below are just some of the benefits of physical activity for children and adults:

  • Stronger muscles and bones
  • Energized body
  • Better mental health
  • Healthy heart
  • Healthy outlook
  • Better emotional health
  • Better sleep

2. The Menace of Physical Inactivity

The worrying trend is that physical activity is gradually being replaced by physical inactivity. This is no doubt a blight to early childhood development, and can affect their cognitive, health and social-economic growth! The side effects of inactivity can be felt even to adulthood.

Without physical activity, the human body cannot perform optimally. This can lead to lessened productivity and increased expenditure on health. Ironically, as children skip the workout, they are actually eating more unhealthy meals, full of simple calories and sugars.

These three worrying things are happening today:

  • The turn of the Century unveiled digitally driven generations which almost entirely depend on technology to accomplish day to day activities.
  • The young generation kids are also born into a world which is urbanizing so rapidly.
  • Third, the Zs and Alphas are borne to parents who are extremely busy and are not keen on the benefits of physical activities at home.

The following health and other noncommunicable diseases are bound to happen to sedentary persons:

  • Weak bones and muscles
  • Low vitality
  • Poor mental health
  • Heart complications
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Poor sleep patterns
  • Colon and other cancers

The Impact of Modern-day Lifestyles on Physical Wellness of Children

kids love tech
Children today spend more time than is necessary on smartphone use

1. Misuse of Technology

Both young and old generation cohorts are not moving around enough, preferring instead to spend countless hours seated and swiping away on their mobiles. The sedentary lifestyle does not allow them to experience expected body growth and thus healthy living.

According to Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute.

Childhood physical inactivity reaches crisis levels around the globe: Report compares 49 countries; says 75 percent of countries have failing physical activity grades.

ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 November 2018.

It is only natural that kids run around the house and outdoors with a lot of excitement. This is hard-wired in their brains and designed to keep them fit and grow into healthy persons.  

According to a team of researchers, kids run around without tiring because their muscles resist fatigue and recover just as fast as elite athletes.

They found out that,

children used more of their aerobic metabolism and were, therefore, less tired during the high-intensity physical activities… They also recovered very quickly — even faster than the well-trained adult endurance athletes — as demonstrated by their faster heart-rate recovery and ability to remove blood lactate…  This may explain why children seem to have the ability to play and play and play, long after adults have become tired.           

Frontiers

IN BRIEF, children should be left to play, play and play. And play again and again.

However, kids in the 21st Century are easily distracted by tech gadgets which are randomly shoved in their faces. They so easily forgo playtime and prefer burying themselves in tablets and smartphones. Extended use of tech devices will make them feel tired, grow fat, develop poor eating habits, and ultimately sleep poorly.

While this is happening, parents simply look on or are ignorant of the facts.

Parents should (themselves) exercise restraint when using tech devices in order to curtail similar behavior in children. Take them out and the magic of play will definitely happen.


2. The Menace of Urban Environment

Without question, physical activity for children has received a beating because of urbanization around the globe. The growing population and exodus to urban centers mean there is less room for homestead backyards and playgrounds.

The few playgrounds and open spaces in cities are being cleared for housing, estates and all kinds of infrastructures, to accommodate even more people!  

According to Open University, more than half the global inhabitants live in urban areas. In addition, the high birth rates will see an additional 2.5 billion people join the urban centers by 2050.

Interestingly, the flight to urban centers is ironical since children in rural areas are known to be more active than their fleeing counterparts.

According to Research Gate,

rural children are more physically active compared to city children, therefore it is interesting to identify if there is any difference in body posture in rural and urban schoolchildren… Regardless of age and gender, schoolchildren from the rural area had better posture than children from the urban area.

Dudoniene, Vilma & Šakalienė, Rasa & Švedienė, Ligija & Musteikytė Petrauskienė, Inga. (2018). DIFFERENCES OF AGE AND GENDER RELATED POSTURE IN URBAN AND RURAL SCHOOLCHILDREN AGED 7 TO 10. Baltic Journal of Sport and Health Sciences. 1. 10.33607/bjshs.v1i88.142

The expanding urban environment leaves little room for children to run around or take advantage of active transportation such as cycling. The fear of criminal activities in many street corners forces parents to cut down on child mobility outdoors.

Save for the school going children who experience physical activity in schools (that is if the schools permit or the children are interested), the young ones at home are destined to experience little or none of the outdoor play time.

They automatically turn to the next best activities available at home, and for most urbane homes, this means technology.


3. The Busy Parent & Educator of the 21st Century


The 21st Century has gotten so intense as parents juggle all kinds of workloads in order to sustain their families. The rising cost of living and the need to deep hands into multiple income-generating activities mean they spend less time with children.

When back home, they still have to grapple with unfinished assignments carried along from work.

They never get the time to walk their children through much-needed physical activities. Al they do is provide food, sleep, and a healthy environment. Physical wellness is rarely fitted into the equation.

Ultimately, the little ones are attended to by nannies or caregivers in preschool facilities. If truth be told, nobody else will provide the ultimate parenting other than parents themselves.

As per WHO guidelines parents should

reduce the non-active time (e.g. television viewing, computer);

encourage safe walking/bicycling to school and to other social activities;

make physical activity part of the family’s daily routine such as designating time for family walks or playing active games together;

ensure that the activity is age appropriate and provide protective equipment such as helmets, wrist pads, and knee pads.

Besides parents, educators too, are not being very helpful. Mushrooming education institutions around the globe lack facilities for sporting activities and those that do are busy prioritizing academic excellence.

According to Health Education Research,

the lack of increased PA (Physical Activity) opportunities for children indicates a need to formally educate teachers on these benefits in order to attain quality time in which academic objectives can be met and children have an opportunity to be active during the school day


The Way Forward

Walking your child down the park is probably not enough, but a good starting point. The goal is to transition from moderate to vigorous and intense physical activity on a daily basis.

Perhaps to get every parent started, here are a few tips from World Health Organization:

Physical activity can be done almost anywhere and does not necessarily require equipment! Carrying groceries, wood, books or children are good complementary physical activities, as is climbing the stairs instead of using the elevator. Walking is perhaps the most practiced and most highly recommended physical activity and it is absolutely free. Some urban areas have parks, waterfronts or other pedestrian areas that are ideal for walking, running or playing. It is not imperative to go to a gym, pool or other special sports facility to be physically active.

Start with regular treks down the road

As they get better and more active they should get involved in unsupervised free plays with other kids in the neighborhood. This promotes the goal of vigorous and intense physical activity.