Like most parents, I send my child off to soccer practice thinking she's getting plenty of exercise. But that probably isn't true.
Only about 25 percent of children who play organized sports get the government-recommended 60 minutes of activity each day, according to new research in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. The children studied were active for 45 minutes on average—which is not so bad—but the young athletes spent 30 minutes standing around or sitting during each practice.
Since about 44 million kids take part in organized sports, that's a lot of children who aren't getting the workout they need. (That's especially true, since many schools have cut back PE, or eliminated it altogether.) Leagues and schools could improve the situation by emphasizing participation over competition, sponsoring teams for kids of all ages and skill levels, and holding more practices, according to the authors of the study, who are from San Diego State University and the University of California-San Diego. They also suggest coaches have the kids were pedometers or accelerometers during practice to gauge their activity level, as the researchers did in the study.
Kids really need that hour of daily activity; there's abundant evidence showing that children do better academically when they have gym or other physical activity every day. And given that 16 percent of children are obese, and 31 percent are overweight, every extra minute of exercise reduces the risk of health problems that come with being overweight or obese.
Some athletes in the new study got almost no exercise during practices; for instance, fewer than 2 percent of female softball players were active for an hour. But parents don't need to wait around for leagues and schools to get their acts together; they can make it easier for children and all family members to be more active. Try these expert-recommended strategies:
1. Use a pedometer to track physical activity. The book Walk the Walk, a Kids Book of Pedometer Challenges, suggests games family members can use to challenge each other, but you can easily make up your own. A quality pedometer costs about $25, and can be used by everyone in the family. Have a family contest, with prizes for the most active.
2. Build more activity into the family's day. Designate Wednesday as walk-to-school day, or bike or walk to the nearest store rather than drive. Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign has scads of simple ideas for making family life more active, like walking around the block after a meal, or enforcing a new house rule: no sitting still during television commercials.
3. Have a daily Green Hour. Getting outside pretty much guarantees that children will be active. The National Wildlife Federation's "Green Hour" program encourages families to get outside for one hour a day, since research shows being outdoors improves physical and mental health.
Organized sports remain a huge source of fun and activity for children, but parents need to realize that dropping their kids off at softball practice doesn't guarantee that they're actually getting exercise.