Fit for Life; It's not too late for a generation of inactive children to shape up


Kids plopped in front of the television or computer or furiously playing a video game: It's a typical scene in many American homes. The great outdoors has lost its appeal as technology seduces kids into a sedentary lifestyle.

Inactivity and poor nutrition put them at risk as adults for obesity, heart disease and cancer, says fitness guru Dr. Kenneth Cooper in his book "Fit Kids! The Complete Shape Up Program from Birth through High School" (Broadman & Holman Publishers, $14.99).

"Most of the risky behaviors for these killer diseases begin in childhood," Cooper says. Parents have the power to transform their couch potatoes into lean, active kids.

But parents can no longer rely on physical education classes to whip kids into shape. Few students take physical education five times a week.

Illinois is the only state that requires daily physical education from kindergarten to 12th grade. In some Maryland middle schools, physical education is an elective. In high schools, the state requires only half a credit (one semester) of physical education to graduate.

The good news is that some high schools in the Baltimore area make students fulfill the physical education requirement by taking a Fitness for Life course that teaches lifelong activity.

Even so, area physical education directors say the state requirements are inadequate because children need activity. Meanwhile, gyms and YMCAs are becoming more family friendly.

"We've made home so physically entertaining, they don't go outside," says Carl Gabbard, president of the National Association for Sports and Physical Education and a professor at Texas A&M.; "The average kid watches 25 to 40 hours a week of television. That doesn't include the two hours they may have spent on the computer. That's time they could have been outside."

More than one in five children ages 6 to 17 is overweight. Obesity is linked to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer, according to the National Institute for Health Statistics. Physical inactivity and poor diet account for about 300,000 deaths a year, says a Surgeon General's report.

All that underscores the need for parents to get involved in their children's physical activity. "Children should be involved in at least 30 minutes of moderate activity every day, although 60 minutes is even better," Cooper says. Physical activity not only reduces the risk of heart disease, but studies show it improves learning and mental health, experts say.

"Physically fit children perform at more optimal levels cognitively," says Gabbard. "That doesn't mean they're smarter, but they get the best out of themselves when they're physically fit. It really improves their ability to learn and staves off fatigue."

Knowing that, Cooper says, parents should talk with their children about the importance of exercise and fitness and then create a family fitness program. "It's important to help your children choose activities they enjoy doing," Cooper says. Fun things may be taking a family walk or hike, riding bicycles or inline skating, joining a sports team or getting a membership at a fitness center.

Parents should be flexible, Cooper says. If Dad wants to jog and Joey wants to play catch, Dad might suggest that Joey jog around the block with him, and then they play catch. At first, the goal should be a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes of activity two or three days a week, gradually building to four or five days a week.

While being a role model is important, parents don't have to be responsible for every activity, Cooper says. Schools and physical education should play a role in keeping kids active, experts say. Adolescents and teens tend to be more inactive with each year of high school and fewer enroll in physical education classes from freshman to senior year, according to a Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

To counteract that, Charles Corbin, professor of exercise science at Arizona State University, and his colleague Ruth Lindsey published the Fitness for Life textbook in 1978 with the idea that teaching young people lifelong physical activities will make them active as adults.

Maryland doesn't require high school students to take a Fitness for Life course, but some high schools do. The course includes classroom sessions that teach physical activity, fitness principles and consumer tips. Kids assess their fitness, plan their personal fitness program, set goals and monitor their progress.

"The goal is to help students become independent in their physical activity rather than dependent on others," says Corbin. "The HELP [Health for Everyone for a Lifetime on a Personal basis] philosophy is the basis for the program."

High school students in Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel and Harford counties must take a Fitness for Life-type course to graduate. In Baltimore City and Carroll County, lifetime fitness activities are included in the physical education programs, but they don't offer or require a Fitness for Life course.

Howard County began offering its course, called Lifetime Fitness, in 1994, six years after the state Department of Education cut the high school physical education requirement from one credit to half a credit. With only one semester of physical education, the county required Lifetime Fitness because "we have the kids only one time," says Don Disney, coordinator of physical education, athletics and dance.

In a classroom and lab setting, students learn about the five fitness components: body composition, cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, muscular strength and flexibility, says Disney. After learning about flexibility in a classroom, they apply it in a lab, maybe by taking yoga, Disney says. They set up their own fitness program and create an "activity bank" that lists their favorite activities to reach each of the five fitness components.

In Baltimore County, high school students are required to take a similar course, called Fitness Foundations, Fitness Mastery.

"Our goal is to give kids enough experiences so they can make better choices to participate in something they like, so as adults they will continue to move," says Sally Nazelrod, supervisor of physical education for Baltimore County. "Physical education has changed. Now we offer much more variety so they feel comfortable participating in something. We don't have kids standing in line and picking teams. We teach them the skills and concepts that will help them be lifelong participants in physical activity."

In Baltimore City, high school students must take one credit of physical education. Western High students must take swimming. "We have a lot of beginners, so we teach the basic skills of swimming," says Victoria Knuckles, athletic director, who hopes some of the girls will want to join the school swim team.

Disney and other physical education directors encourage students to take PE electives. About 60 percent of the students in Howard take the minimum, while 40 percent take PE electives, Disney says.

In Anne Arundel County, where physical education is an elective in middle school and a half credit is required in high school, instructors try to entice students with electives such as weightlifting and dance. Some go beyond the basics, but participation drops by 11th and 12th grades because of academic requirements.

Says Rick Wiles, coordinator of health and physical education for Anne Arundel: "I'd love to have them go back to requiring one credit [two semesters] of physical education. I think kids need to be more physically active because of the stress levels."

Gyms, too, are changing. The YMCA in Towson includes a child activity center. Parents can play with their kids or the staff will baby-sit while the parents exercise. Families also can swim together during recreational swimming.

"It's another opportunity for families to spend quality time together," says Mark Elsasser, executive director of Towson YMCA. "Parents can exercise without dropping the kids off with somebody else."

At the Columbia Gym in Columbia, a program called Wee Sports, Kids Sports and Youth Sports offers a variety of activities and classes. Children 12 and 13 can work out alongside their parents after a personal trainer instructs them on proper gym etiquette and the use of exercise equipment, says Joel Schlossberg, general manager.

Why provide such a variety of activities? "Health and fitness is becoming a family activity," Schlossberg says. "It's just as important for young people to exercise as it is for adults and seniors. If you want Mom and Dad to come out, you have to provide something for the children."


If you think your child is overweight, talk to a physician. The doctor will take your child's weight and height to determine whether your child has a weight problem.

* Be supportive no matter what your child's weight. Children's feelings about themselves often are based on their parents' feelings about them.

* Increase the family's activity. Regular physical activity and healthy eating are the best way to get everyone healthy, not just an overweight child.

* Plan family activities like walking, dancing, biking and swimming.

* Don't place your child on a restrictive diet. Teach your children to eat a balanced diet by taking equal servings of the Food Guide pyramid.

* Gradually reduce the amount of fat in your family's diet. Make a variety of healthful foods available, plan healthy snacks and eat meals together as a family as often as possible.

Source: National Institutes of Health

Shaping up at an early age

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that children in elementary school receive a minimum of 150 minutes per week (or 30 minutes daily) of instructional physical education and middle and high school students receive 225 minutes (or 45 minutes daily).

Here's how to assure quality physical education programs for your child:

* Talk to the physical education teacher and the principal in your child's school about their program and how you can support it.

* Ask about the curriculum -- student safety and physical conditioning, instruction time, teacher-student ratio, facilities, equipment and supplies, and evaluation process.

* Contact other parents, the parent/teacher organization and school board for assistance in improving your child's physical education program.

* Recommend that the local school authorities refer to NASPE's National Standards for Physical Education and program appraisal guidelines in developing the programs in your district.

Source: Surgeon General's Report/Shape of The Nation

Parents can encourage fitness by:

* Watching sports events with their children and interjecting comments on the performance or behavior of the athletes.

* Encouraging sports parties, such as ice skating or vigorous playground games.

* Suggesting enrollment in community sports programs.

* Sending your child to a sports camp.

* Taking your child to professional sports games and autograph sessions.

* Becoming a sponsor, coach or helper for your child's community sports team.

* The most compelling component of fun for a child is probably the presence of an interested and involved parent.

If your child wants to quit a sport, encourage perseverance. Says Dr. Kenneth Cooper: "Every normal child, even those who initially may appear uncoordinated or unathletic, can become a competent athlete and develop the skills and fitness needed to enjoy a variety of sports. It's just a matter of believing they can do it and making a reasonable effort. Parents and other respected adults must encourage these young people to continue to work on their basic fitness and motor skills."

Source: "Fit Kids!" by Dr. Kenneth Cooper

Selecting a healthclub:

* Make sure it is accessible. You're more inclined to go frequently if you live or work nearby.

* Get the services you need. Many health clubs have a variety of aerobic and weightlifting machines and aerobics classes. Be sure the equipment and classes you want are available at times you need them. A trial membership is usually a good idea.

* Look for helpful staff. If you're new to working out, you'll need some coaching in the techniques of strength-training. The staff should offer advice without your asking for it.

* Make it a base for other aerobic exercise. Many people who walk, run or bicycle for exercise find it convenient to use their health club as a starting and finishing point, giving them a place to stretch, shower and do strength training afterward. Make sure it is near a good walking, running or cycling area.

* If you plan to do aerobic swimming, look for a pool that's at least 20 yards long, is supervised by a lifeguard and offers organized lap-swimming sessions at convenient times. Trial visits will allow you to make sure the pool isn't crowded when you plan to use it.

* Look for extras the club offers. If you have children, you may want a children's fitness program or baby-sitting. You may want yoga classes, massage therapy, steamrooms or nutrition counseling.

* Find an affordable gym. A long relationship with an affordable club is better than a short one with an expensive club.

Source: Johns Hopkins University Health Insider, September 1999

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