The internet, cellphones and video games have seized the imaginations of millions of children, while the appeal of exploring Mother Nature has faded. Now, critics are warning that this trend has been catastrophic for children's physical and emotional well-being.
Children and adolescents should spend at least one hour engaged in physical activity every day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet, about two-thirds of children are not active enough to meet such minimum standards, says Jim Baugh, founder of PHIT America, a social media and marketing campaign focused on promoting "an active, fit and healthy America."
And the situation does not improve in adolescence. By the time children reach high school, only about 27 percent are getting the amount of daily physical activity they require, the CDC says.
"We have an inactivity pandemic that is crushing children physically and mentally and stunting their academic development," Baugh says.
The high price of inactivity
Lack of activity also negatively impacts a child's social development, Baugh says.
"When kids play and interact, it develops the social skills that are so vital for children," he says.
Such skills help children become successful adults, and include:
- Learning how to win and lose
- Discovering how to handle adversity
- Understanding the importance of contributing to a team effort. "Playing on a team -- that's what you're doing in business," Baugh says.
Finally, lack of activity can impact a child's academic progress. "Our bodies are made to move, and there is plenty of evidence that a more active kid is a better student," Baugh says.
The causes of child inactivity
Several factors have contributed to the reduced level of physical activity among children.
Baugh says "addiction to electronic devices" tops the list. He adds that too many parents occupy children with electronics, instead of encouraging the kids to participate in offline activities.
In addition play time – such as sports activity – has become overly structured, robbing it of much of the relaxed and spontaneous fun kids used to experience, Baugh says.
Finally, many parents are overly cautious and afraid to let their children engage in new experiences.
"When kids want to try something, the 'helicopter' nature of parents can be a problem," he says.
Getting kids moving again
Fortunately, parents can do several things to reverse the trend toward sloth. For starters, Baugh encourages parents and other leaders to let kids have more fun when playing sports.
"It's important to stress fun rather than heavy, heavy competition," he says.
The federal government's "Let's Move!" campaign also offers tips for increasing motivation for exercise in children. The campaign notes that parents who are active themselves are the best role models for children.
In fact, the campaign urges parents to be active for at least 30 minutes a day, and kids to be active for at least one hour.
Other tips include:
- Engage in active family time by walking in parks, biking through the neighborhood or swimming at a local pool.
- Provide toys that promote activity, including balls, kites and jump ropes.
- Limit TV time, and do not put a TV in your child's room.
Also, make sure you child gets enough rest. A well-rested child will have more energy to be active. One recent study found that for every extra hour of sleep a child gets, the risk of becoming overweight or obese drops by 9 percent.
If simply encouraging your child to become more active does not bear fruit, take a more forceful approach, Baugh says.
"Allocate certain times of the day that are no-electronics time," he says. "Tell them that from 4 to 6, it's play time."
Note: Offer your kids healthy snacks to fuel their bodies during activity and play time. Find tons of snack options that are both kid- and parent-approved at our back-to-school shopping headquarters.