American Children Tuned In, Weighed Down

July 17, 2002

As rates of childhood obesity reach epidemic levels in the United States, health experts are concerned that America is raising a generation of couch potato kids. Fifty percent of American youth do not get enough vigorous exercise and 13 percent between the ages of 6 and 11 are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, 14 percent of teens are overweight.
The problem doesn't always go away when these youngsters reach adulthood. Inactive, overweight children often become inactive, overweight adults who are at risk for health problems such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. The CDC estimates that 300,000 Americans die each year from diseases related to inactivity -- reason enough to start children on lifelong habits of physical fitness.
One culprit of the young couch potato generation might be technology, says Dr. Karen Fredenburg, Baylor assistant professor of health, human performance and recreation. Children have more electronic entertainment choices than ever before, and unless parents encourage physical activities, youngsters often opt to tune in to more sedentary ones.
"Physical activity used to be a necessary part of everyday life," Dr. Fredenburg says. "Because of our affluence, it's become more of a choice." 
Safety concerns also may be a factor keeping children from spending more time outdoors, she says. "Kids used to walk or ride their bikes to school. Now, parents are understandably reluctant to allow young children to do that, and as a result, they have less physical activity built into their day," she says.
Even organized sports might not supply the amount of strenuous exercise needed to obtain optimal fitness levels. Dr. Fredenburg points out that some sports, such as baseball, involve lots of downtime and don't give children sustained physical activity or a good aerobic workout.
Children often model what they see their parents do, so it's important for parents to make physical activity an enjoyable part of daily life. Dr. Fredenburg suggests the following family activities to boost fitness levels in children: 
• Eliminate one television program each week and instead take a family walk around the block or play in the yard. 
• Park the car farther away when shopping. Count the steps to your destination and try to increase that number the next time.
• Take the stairs instead of elevators or escalators.
• Walk or ride bikes in a charity event.
• Discover your city or town -- go to the zoo, walk the nature trails or pack a picnic lunch and bring some sports equipment to the park. 
• Participate in a neighborhood cleanup. You'll help your community and also get some exercise. 

Beal is a lecturer in Baylor's Louise Herrington School of Nursing, where she teaches "The Experience of Illness." She received her BS from Columbia University and her MN from Emory. She is a freelance health and medical writer.