In Our View: Failing at Fitness

Today's youth less physically fit than previous generations, and it's no surprise



One of the most remarkable and unique things about the human body is that it improves the more you use it. Efficiency, durability, reliability … they all increase with increased use and proper maintenance. If only the same could be said be said about that clunker in your garage.

So it is with much dismay — but little surprise — that we consider a recent report presented at an American Heart Association conference. Researchers have found that children today are not as physically fit as their parents were at the same age. Oh, they might be more adept at video games and they might know more about programming the family computer, but when it comes to actually moving, today’s youngsters are a step behind.

Examining fitness data from various studies throughout the world, researchers found that, on average, it takes children 90 seconds longer to run a mile than it did their counterparts 30 years ago. And heart-related fitness has declined 5 percent per decade since 1975 for children ages 9 to 17.

“It makes sense,” said Dr. Stephen Daniels, a University of Colorado pediatrician and spokesperson for the heart association. “We have kids that are less active than before.”

The study was led by Grant Tomkinson, an exercise physiologist at the University of South Australia. It analyzed 50 studies on running fitness — a key measure of fitness and endurance — involving 25 million children between 1964 and 2010. The results found that today’s youth are 15 percent less fit than their parents were.

“The changes are very similar for boys and girls and also for various ages,” Tomkinson said.

As we mentioned, this is not surprising. Most of the children in the study were from Asia, but any perusal of class photos from previous generations in the United States clearly shows that children years ago were much thinner than their modern counterparts. We could get into a deep discussion about the role that diet has played in that change, but we’ll save that for another time. For now, the focus is on a lack of physical activity for today’s students. As Sam Kass, a White House chef and head of first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program told the Associated Press, “We are currently facing the most sedentary generation of children in our history.”

Experts recommend that children 6 and older engage in 60 minutes of physical activity throughout the day, but studies show that only about one-third of American kids typically reach that level. “Kids aren’t getting enough opportunities to build up that activity over the course of the day,” Daniels said. “Many schools, for economic reasons, don’t have any physical education at all. Some rely on recess” to provide exercise. Locally, Vancouver Public Schools and Evergreen Public Schools both provide physical education courses, but not on a daily basis.

Frequent P.E. classes — and physical activity in general — can benefit students in a variety of ways, beyond helping to improve their time in the mile run. Such classes are an important outlet for stress and anxiety; they teach healthy activities and habits that can be carried out for a lifetime; and they can improve academic focus when the students return to the classroom. Those who participate in extracurricular athletics will engage in physical activity, but exercise is still important for those who aren’t athletes.

Physical fitness should be an area of emphasis for schools as well as parents, and it should include education in addition to activity. As mentioned, the human body is a remarkable machine. But you need to use it in order to achieve peak performance.