It's no secret that childhood obesity is a major issue in the United States. First Lady Michelle Obama has even devoted part of her agenda to fighting it. At the core of the problem is the fact that less than one third of all children ages 6 to 17 get regular vigorous exercise, defined as at least 20 minutes of physical activity that makes them sweat and breathe hard, according to a new joint report from the American Heart Association and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. That's in stark contrast to what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommended in its recently released Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise daily.
So what should parents do to get their kids moving more often? First, don't assume your child gets sufficient exercise in school through physical education classes, experts say. Most, but not all states require P.E., according to the new report. That means parents should incorporate physical activity into family time at home. Here are 5 tips to get started:
Encourage a little bit at a time. Minutes spent playing kickball with friends during recess count toward the hourlong daily goal, as does climbing trees in the backyard after school. "It doesn't have to be all at once," says Nancy Brown, CEO of the AHA. "Kids should be doing things appropriate for their age, so that [exercise] becomes a behavior and a natural part of what they do."
Advocate for well-maintained, safe sidewalks and bike paths in your neighborhood, and volunteer to supervise the use of school facilities after hours. Children are more likely to want to play outside—and you'll feel more comfortable with them doing it—if it's safe, so attend neighborhood association or city council meetings to request proper upkeep of nearby sidewalks and paths. Also, consider gyms and tracks at local schools as options for physical activity after hours and on weekends. Often, schools are willing to make gyms and equipment available on the weekends but simply need parents to volunteer to supervise, Brown says.
Practice what you preach. "We think that parents and other adult role models need to set an example by being active themselves," Brown says. And it's not hard to find activities the whole family can do together, such as a daily walk or bike ride in the neighborhood. Other simple but fun options: hide-and-seek, jump rope, tag, or a game of basketball in the driveway. Mowing the lawn, raking leaves, and shoveling snow count, too.
Don't underestimate the value of some video games. The AHA and Nintendo recently teamed up to promote the use of the Wii Fit to help Americans meet recommended physical activity guidelines. The goal of the partnership is to teach people how so-called "active-play" video games encourage regular exercise. If you're having a tough time getting your child to play outside, consider buying a video game that requires the child to get moving, Brown suggests.
Don't let other activities or physical disabilities limit your child. Thirty-two states allow students to waive P.E. because of health issues, physical disabilities, religious beliefs, early graduation, or participation in other activities, such as cheerleading or marching band. But those kids—even those with physical disabilities or health problems—still need to get an hour or more of exercise per day, says Charlene Burgeson, executive director of the NASPE. "Not being physically active isn't the way to go. If students have health issues or disabilities, there may be a way to modify the [physical] activity" to accommodate them, she says. "By not giving them that activity, we're really doing them an injustice." Solving this problem may mean approaching the school or gym teacher to ask how the class can be modified to accommodate your child.