By Dr. Joseph Kahn
Physical inactivity is literally killing America. Data indicates that 11 percent of children ages 6-11 and 14 percent of children ages 11-16 are obese. More than one half of adults don’t meet recommended levels of activity and half of those have no regular physical activity. Sedentary lifestyles lead to increased risks and increased costs of health care. Since this habit of inactivity begins early in life, the promotion of physical activity among children is imperative for their health and for the future of our nation.
We all recognize that regular physical activity promotes good health. For those who don’t exercise, even moderate increases in energy expenditures have significant health benefits. Physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, hyperlipidemia (elevated levels of blood lipids such as cholesterol and triglycerides), obesity and the cardiovascular disease resulting from these risk factors. Those who exercise regularly have a lower risk of colon cancer, a reduction in anxiety and an increased feeling of well being, a better physical appearance, and an increase in bone strength and density.
Although any activity is clearly better than no activity, the greatest benefits seem to come from planned, structured and consistent exercise. Beginning a regimen of low to moderate physical activity is more likely to lead to adherence to the program and be less likely to result in injury. Current recommendations call for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity daily. Brisk walking, biking for pleasure, swimming, sports and tasks such as intense yard work are all good exercises. For kids, the key is fun. If an activity is fun, they will be more likely to want to do more.
Physical Education curriculum in schools is an excellent source of activity. It also promotes the importance of aerobic exercise, maintenance of flexibility, good nutrition and health lifestyle habits. Regular physical education also enhances academic performance, self esteem and overall mental health. Over the years, requirements for PE classes have been reduced to the point that less than half of middle and junior high schools require at least three years of PE classes and even fewer for grades 9-12.
Parents and schools can work together to promote comprehensive physical education. Collaboration between classroom teachers and PE teachers can be encouraged by allowing a five-minute stretch and activity break periodically throughout the day. After school extracurricular activity must be promoted along with agencies and programs that facilitate exercise. Children learn by example so it is important that parents be active as well.
Mercy, through Mercy Children’s Hospital, has made a multi-million dollar investment in the health of the children in our communities by offering HealthTeacher, an online health literacy circulum, to every school located in our four-state service area. Currently almost 9,000 teachers in more than 1,800 schools reach over 800,000 children with HealthTeacher from Mercy. Currently, the number one HealthTeacher lesson is our service area is “Make Physical Activity a Priority” followed by “Nutrition,” “Get More Sleep” and “Types of Physical Activity.” Ask your child about HealthTeacher. If you or your child is unaware of this great teaching tool, talk to your child’s teacher. HealthTeacher is available and your child should be learning from it.
Dr. Joseph Kahn is a Mercy Clinic pediatrician and president of Mercy Children's Hospital Services.