Remember summer break as a kid? Spending hours exploring the outdoors freely, riding bikes around town or jumping in on a neighborhood game of basketball? Being physically active was built into the rhythm of our summer days.
Flash forward to the 21st century. Sadly, times have changed.
Obesity, a peer-reviewed journal by thought leaders in the field, published a piece in 2016 that surprised even the medical community. A longitudinal study on kids in kindergarten through second grade found that obesity rates rose only in summer. Kids became obese, not on the oft-criticized coupling of cafeteria food and a sedentary academic day, but during the leisurely, sun-filled weeks of summer.
How our school-aged kids spend their summers matters a great deal, and the reality of what they are choosing to do with their time is disheartening.
The American Academy of Pediatrics found that kids spend an average of seven hours a day engrossed with television, computers, phones and other electronic devices. Unless their media of choice is playing a fitness game or app, time in front of a screen is sedentary. Unfortunately, heavy screen time is not simply an issue with our teens; kids of all ages have a hard time shutting down electronic media. A report by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that 68 percent of children under the age of two spend more than two hours a day in front of a screen.
This crisis of physical inactivity has contributed to rising rates of childhood obesity for the past several decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics found that by 2014, 17 percent of youth in the U.S. were obese — that’s nearly two out of every ten children! As kids gain unhealthy amounts of weight, they become at risk for troubling health concerns such as:
* High blood pressure.
* High cholesterol.
* Bone and joint problems.
* Sleep apnea.
* Poor self-esteem.
Obesity, however, is not the only health issue that arises from inactivity and screen time. In 2010, Pediatrics published a study looking at the health effects of media on children and adolescents. The study found that excessive screen time (more than one or two hours per day) not only contributed to unhealthy weight gain, but also to poor sleep patterns, attention difficulties, anxiety and depression.
So how do we get our kids off the couch and moving? Physical activity is invigorating. Experts suggest that it only takes five minutes of walking to improve one’s mood and lessen the physical manifestations of anxiety. Also, with the summer weather on our side, it’s a great opportunity to be outdoors. Whether taking a stroll down a city block or embarking on a hike to the peak of a mountain — feeling the sun on your face, breathing in fresh air and using the strength of your body to move is enlivening! The good news is that all physical activity counts. Walking a family pet, playing at a local park or signing up for a team sport — anything that gets kids moving — can have a positive impact on their health.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least one hour per day of moderate physical activity for all youth over the age of six. Even better, at least 3 of those 60-minute intervals should include vigorous physical activity, which will have robust effects on bone and muscle strength. We may no longer live in a world where it’s safe to simply let our kids roam the neighborhood, but there are certainly other ways to get them moving. Strategies to get kids outdoors and active follow.
What child doesn’t love rolling down the sidewalk on a pair of skates? Perhaps a family bike ride is overdue. Have the luxury of living near a beach? Swimming and surfing can provide a terrific workout. The martial arts have also become a popular activity for youth and are an excellent choice for teaching focus, listening skills, confidence and self-control. Though classes may be taught in indoor studios, your kids can certainly practice their skills outside.
Basketball, baseball, soccer, beach volleyball and tennis are excellent outdoor activities for summer. Certainly, your child needn’t join an organized team to explore this option. Pick-up games at a park or routine get-togethers with a group of friends can be an impromptu way to play. Too complicated to get a group of kids together? Challenge your kids to dribble a soccer ball around obstacles, work on their lay-up shot or hit a tennis ball against a wall — there are countless skills to practice without a team.
For the Love of Nature
For the child who simply comes to life outdoors, there is no better way to stay physically fit than taking a walk or going for a run. Whether in a park, around the neighborhood or on a local trail, you’d be surprised at the distance kids can go. Use the opportunity to point out observations along the way or to play a version of I Spy as you move along a trail. If you have older kids, walking is often a stealthy way to connect. Time spent alone with your child, in the quiet of a wooded trail or simply walking the sidewalks of a quiet neighborhood, can often inspire deep conversation.
For children who are passionate about the latest technology, wearable fitness trackers continue to grow in popularity. In fact, there are flashy versions on the market designed for kids as young as four. Some nuts-and-bolts models simply track a user’s steps, heart rate and sleep quality. Others make the process fun by incorporating personalized challenges and games. Not surprisingly, getting a virtual, “Congrats,” even from a device, is a great motivator.
There’s an App for That!
If wearing a fitness device is of no interest to your kids, or you can’t justify the price tag, consider downloading a fitness app for a smartphone. Many are free and they’re great options for school-aged kids. Apps can cover everything from teaching yoga poses to tracking runs.
Families can also weigh the benefit of letting their children play location-based, augmented reality games. Though most of us wouldn’t feel comfortable with our children venturing out on their own, there is certainly potential for this technology under the supervision of a parent. Augmented reality, especially as the technology improves and more safety checks are put into place, may prove a novel way to get the kids off the couch and jazzed about being outdoors.
Electronic entertainment is powerful. So powerful, that many kids prefer screen time to playtime. Remember: Screen time is sedentary, contributes to unhealthy weight gain, and can lead to poor sleep patterns, attention difficulties, anxiety and depression. Whether signing the kids up for a team sport, or asking them to walk the dog, anything to steer them away from the screen and toward physical activity is a win. A win not only for their childhood, but also for the development of healthy habits that will carry over into adulthood.
Sarah R. Kiser, MSN, RN, CPNP-PC, has more than a decade of experience in pediatric nursing. She practices in Massachusetts as the exclusive PNP to an independent boarding and day school for girls, grades 5 to 12. Her blog is at www.kidshealthwithsarah.com.