Perhaps it is only fair to start with a trip down memory lane, to understand well the complex question of physical activity for children!
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! Everything was simple and flowed naturally.
Those activities are long gone and have been replaced by a vast collection of static toys and computing gadgets.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!
Here is food for thought:
- Lack of physical activity for children and adults is a risk factor leading to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as stroke, diabetes, and cancer.
- Globally, 81% of school-going children are not physically active.
- Lack of physical activity contributes to anxiety and depression.
- According to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity is one of the factors leading to premature deaths globally.
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 of an active lifestyle, but somehow will remind parents what their children are ‘truly’ missing.
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
The big worry …
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 wellbeing! The side effects of inactivity can be felt even to adulthood.
The following health and other non-communicable diseases are bound to happen to sedentary persons:
- Weak bones and muscles
- Low vitality
- Poor mental health
- Heart complications
- Poor sleep patterns
- Colon and other cancers
The impact of the modern-day lifestyle on the physical wellness of children
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 children to experience the much-needed development milestones.
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 that 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 urbanization
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 of the global population lives 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 ironic since children in rural areas are known to be more active than their fleeing counterparts.
According to research,
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.
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 playtime.
They automatically turn to the next best activities available at home, and for most urbane homes, this means technology.
3. The distracted 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 try out multiple income-generating activities means 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 the much-needed physical activities. All 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
Reviewing physical activity for children
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 the 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.
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.