CAN WE GET OUR KIDS FIT? The Research May Surprise you


Do Exercise Programs Help Children Stay Fit?  By GRETCHEN REYNOLD

Thor Swift

Getting children to be more physically active seems as if it should be so simple. Just enroll them in classes and programs during school or afterward that are filled with games, sports and other activities.

But an important new review of the outcomes of a wide range of different physical activity interventions for young people finds that the programs almost never increase overall daily physical activity. The youngsters run around during the intervention period, then remain stubbornly sedentary during the rest of the day.

For the review, which was published last week in the British medical journal BMJ, researchers from the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry in England collected data from 30 studies related to exercise interventions in children that had been published worldwide between January 1990 and March 2012.

To be included in the review, the studies had to have involved children younger than 16, lasted for at least four weeks, and reported objectively measured levels of physical fitness, like wearing motion sensors that tracked how much they moved, not just during the exercise classes but throughout the rest of the day. The studies included an American program in which elementary school-age students were led through a 90-minute session of vigorous running and playing after school, three times a week. Another program involved Scottish preschool youngsters and 30 minutes of moderate physical playtime during school hours, three times a week.

In each case, the investigators had expected that the programs would increase the children’s overall daily physical activity.

That didn’t happen, as the review’s authors found when they carefully parsed outcomes. The American students, for instance, increased their overall daily physical activity by about five minutes per day. But only during the first few weeks of the program; by the end, their overall daily physical activity had returned to about where it had been before the program began. The wee Scottish participants actually became less physically active over all on the days when they had the 30-minute play sessions.

The review authors found similar results for the rest of the studies that they perused. In general, well-designed, well-implemented and obviously very well-meaning physical activity interventions, including ones lasting for up to 90 minutes, added at best about four minutes of additional walking or running to most youngsters’ overall daily physical activity levels.

The programs “just didn’t work,” at least in terms of getting young people to move more, said Brad Metcalf, a research fellow and medical statistician at Peninsula College, who led the review.

Why the programs, no matter their length, intensity or content, led to so little additional daily activity is hard to understand, Dr. Metcalf said, although he and his co-authors suspect that many children unconsciously compensate for the energy expended during structured activity sessions by plopping themselves in front of a television or otherwise being extra sedentary afterward. It is also possible, he said, that on a practical level, the new sessions, especially those taking place after school, simply replace time that the youngsters already devoted to running around, so the overall additive benefit of the programs was nil.

But the broader and more pressing question that the new review raises is, as the title of an accompanying editorial asks, “Are interventions to promote physical activity in children a waste of time?”

Thankfully, the editorial’s authors answer with an immediate and emphatic “no.” If existing exercise programs aren’t working, finding new approaches that do work is essential, they say.

They point out that active children are much more likely to be active adults and that physically active children also are far less likely to be overweight. A convincing, if separate body of scientific evidence has shown that the most physically active and fit children are generally the least heavy.

So if structured classes and programs are not getting children to move more, what, if anything, can be done to increase physical activity in the young? “It’s a really difficult problem,” said Frank Booth, a professor of physiology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who was not involved with the review.

Determining the most effective placement of classes and programs, so that they don’t substitute for time already spent running around and instead augment it, would help, he said.

But a more vital element, he said, “involves mothers and fathers,” who can encourage children to leave the couch, subverting their drive to compensate for energy expended earlier by sitting now.

A welcoming setting may also be key, the authors of the accompanying editorial wrote, pointing to a 2011 study of same-sex twins, ages 9 to 11. In that study, the most important determinant of how much the youngsters moved — or didn’t — was their local built environment. Children with more opportunities to be outside, in a safe, well-designed space, were more likely to be outside, romping.

But none of these suggestions will be easy to put in place, Dr. Booth said, or inexpensive, and all will require scientific validation. No one expected, after all, that well-designed exercise interventions for children would prove to be so ineffective.

Ultimately, he continued, the best use of resources in this field may be to direct them toward unearthing the roots of childhood inactivity. “Kids naturally love to run around and play,” Dr. Booth said. “But they’re just not doing it as much now. And we don’t know why. So what we really need to understand is, what’s happening to our kids that makes them quit wanting to play?”


About horowitzrun

Jeff is a certified running, cycling, and triathlon coach, and is the author of "My First 100 Marathons" (Skyhorse Press 2008) and "Smart Marathon Training" (Velo Press 2011). An obviously addicted runner, Jeff has run at least one marathon in every state and on 6 continents, including marathons in South Africa, China, Bangkok, and Antarctica. Jeff is available for group, one-on-one, and virtual coaching. Options include: 1. Basic Training Plan. This includes a customized training schedule geared towards a goal race, with a detailed running schedule that would include all distances and target times for each workout, including speedwork, tempo, and endurance sessions. 2. Complete Fitness and Race Plan. This includes the plan listed above, plus the non-running workouts and drills that runners need for better overall fitness and performance. You would get strength & core workouts, as well as run-specific training drills and stretches. 3. Virtual Coaching. This includes all of the above, implemented on a week-by-week basis. We review each week's progress at week's end so that adjustments can be made. The program is tailored to suit you right up to race day. It involves more contact, on a weekly or even daily basis. 4. Full Coaching for athletes in the Washington DC area. All of the above, plus a weekly workout together including speedwork, drills, and strength training. 5. Individual track sessions. One-on-one track-based workouts. Contact Jeff for pricing.
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One Response to CAN WE GET OUR KIDS FIT? The Research May Surprise you

  1. Very interesting blog entry/article. I’m not surprised, actually. I’m an ACHIEVE kids triathlon coach, plus I started a before-school walk/run activity at my kids’ elementary school. I believe there are 3 main reasons that kids aren’t as active as we as a society (or coaches) would like. 1) being indoors is just way too fun. When most households have Kinect or Nintendo, computers, i-gadgets, TV’s, etc – well, running around outside, if that is even a possibility in this day and age of dangerous, distracted drivers and lurking predators – is not a big draw. 2) Caregivers are not exactly the best role models. Let’s face it – aside from bouts in zumba class or on the dreadmill, most parents aren’t showing their kids what sweating and gasping looks like, or how fun it can be and how necessary it is. Most adults “don’t have time” to exercise and have resigned themselves to cheering on their kids from the sidelines. Which leads to 3) the professionalization of youth sports has screwed up our kids. Way too early, our kids are labeled and labeling themselves as “athletics” or “non-athletics.” They have to try out for teams, commit to a rigorous practice schedule, be driven all over the place all weekend for games. Especially come middle school, it’s very rare a kid can try out a sport to see if they like it (hundreds of dollars or more in fees & gear makes you committed!), and by then most kids in a sport are well into their 10,000 hours of mastery so I can see why a kid would resign himself to playing soccer on Playstation while his more driven pal, whose parents dream of college scholarships, is out on the field doing the actual work. Some kids, like some adults, are just plain driven. I know some kids who remind me of my dog Penny. When I throw a tennis ball, Penny will get up from a very comfortable perch in the sun and in 3 seconds flat is doing a 3 minute mile to get that ball. Some kids are like that, and our system right now is catering to the Penny Kids. For the kids who are motivated for different reasons – who chase a ball not because of the innate need to, but because they love playing with their friends, or because it just feels good to move, or they like running around in their tennis skirt. Unfortunately, in most areas, and most lifestyles, there is not a viable option for this to happen on a regular basis. It’s a societal problem, and I think that parents need to be a big part of the solution, by setting a healthy example and by getting out of the all-or-nothing mentality.

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