If you'd like to know what to do to help your kids grow up healthy, try this: Take the television from your child's room, throw it in the backyard, and tell the kid to run rings around it. That's the message in the latest news showing that inactivity impairs children's health and well-being and may be setting them up for heart disease and diabetes in adulthood.
Many children, even tiny tots, have TVs in their bedrooms, a fact that has dismayed pediatricians, who presume that less TV is always better. But there's been little evidence that those TVs are really doing harm, aside from two studies showing that children with bedroom TVs tend to be fatter than their TV-less peers.
Now, researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health have kindly provided the ammo that parents need to say a big fat "no" to the personal entertainment center. They looked at a group of 781 teenagers ages 15 to 18 and found that the 62 percent with a bedroom TV were less likely to exercise or to eat fruit and vegetables and got lower grades. Maybe that's because—no surprise here—so many of them watched more than five hours of television a day. (I'd like to know how high schoolers have five-plus hours a day to watch TV, once they've dealt with school, homework, and IM-ing. Maybe they need more chores.)
The picture is particularly troubling for girls, who typically become much less physically active than boys as teenagers. Their moderate and vigorous physical activity dropped by an hour a week if they had a bedroom TV; the boys' activity level didn't change. (On the other hand, only TV-owning boys saw a significant difference in grade-point average, 2.9 compared to 2.6—possibly because they already spend less time than girls doing homework.)
"Parents should move forth and get rid of that TV," says Daheia Barr-Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow and physical activity epidemiologist at Minnesota who led the study, published in April's Pediatrics. She is sympathetic to the fact that parents might not mind having teens holed up in their rooms, rather than rolling their eyes in the living room while Mom watches Grey's Anatomy. But, she says, "it probably is the best for the health of your children."
Further ammunition comes from the University of North Carolina, where researchers have found that less active children are more likely to develop metabolic syndrome as teens. This cluster of symptoms, which includes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes, vastly increases the risk of heart disease. The researchers charted the health and physical activity of 389 children when they were 7 to 10 years old and then again when they were 14 to 17. Almost 5 percent of the children had at least three symptoms of metabolic syndrome as teenagers. The children who were less active and less aerobically fit in grade school were five to 6 times more likely to develop metabolic syndrome. The children at the highest risk were overweight to begin with and got no vigorous exercise—things like playing soccer, swimming, or running intensely enough to get breathless.
It's shocking, and sad, that teenagers in the bloom of youth increasingly have health problems that used to be associated with the infirmities of old age. The good news, if there is any, is that we already know the remedy. Alas, it's exactly the kind of exercise that the schools have chucked, with PE wiped out in favor of more academic sessions and recess a mere blip. Yes, children will ace those standardized tests. They can then go on to shorter, sicker lives, all because we didn't encourage them to run when they were young.