Dear Mr. Dad: The Olympics are just around the corner and I've been wondering whether American athletes are going to compete, given the epidemic of childhood obesity that we keep hearing about. If our kids are so out of shape, how will we ever be able to compete?
A: Back when I was in the fourth grade, I was one of the fastest kids in my school. I remember coming home one afternoon all excited after having won some kind of sprint and telling my parents -- and my grandparents, who were over for dinner -- all about it. My grandfather, who was 72 at the time, challenged me to a race. So we went outside and he proceeded to kick my 9-year old butt.
In my defense, grandpa was a freak of nature. He worked at backbreaking jobs most of his life and died at 103 -- after decades of stuffing his face on mac and cheese and fried chicken at all-you-can-eat buffets. And he did 100 pushups every day almost to the end. I was reminded of that somewhat humiliating day as I was reading several studies conducted by Grant Tomkinson, a senior lecturer in the University of South Australia's School of Health Sciences, who has been researching children's fitness levels around the world.
In one of those studies, Tomkinson and his colleagues found that "kids these days" -- as we love to call them -- are much slower runners than their parents. Worldwide, children are 15% less aerobically fit than we were at their age (however, in the U.S., the cross-generational fitness disparity is over 18%). In more understandable terms, today's kids take 90 seconds more to run a mile than kids the same age did just 30-40 years ago.
Running speed, as it turns out, is a good indicator of overall fitness. And slow, out-of-shape kids tend to grow up to be out-of-shape adults. We've already seen skyrocketing increases in diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and osteoarthritis, and it looks like things are going to get worse.
I find it especially ironic, though, that at the same time children's fitness levels has been slipping, we've experienced a huge increase in the number of kids getting involved in sports. So why are kids so slow? A few thoughts:
-- Organized, highly structured sports may build individual skills but they don't encourage endurance.
-- Schools across the country are getting rid of Physical Education programs. According to some estimates, only 4% elementary schools, 8% of middle schools, and 2% of high schools have P.E. every day.
-- Parents are so worried (often unnecessarily) about their kids' safety that they don't let them walk or bike to school.
-- Electronic devices take up a lot of the free time that kids used to spend outside.
-- The amount of unstructured outside playtime kids have has plummeted.
-- Kids are fatter today than ever. Fat kids are going to be slow kids.
-- Parents don't enforce the very sensible recommendation made by pediatricians and fitness experts that kids get 60 minutes of physical activity per day -- physical activity that makes them sweat.
Back to your question: I don't think our obesity problem will affect our country's performance in the Olympics and other international competition. Elite athletes, like my grandfather, are freaks of nature -- they're simply not like the rest of us -- and they'll always exist. For regular folks like you and me, the solution is pretty simple. Take the kids out and make them exercise -- with you, of course. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as it's strenuous.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to email@example.com.)
(c)2019 Armin Brott
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.