TV vs. Activity: Key Choice for Kids

Red Rover, Red Rover, send Lucy right over.

Ready or not, here I come!

Simon says, pat your head.

Not so long ago, when school was out and the weather was nice, kids were always outside, climbing trees, swinging or playing games. These days, you're more apt to find kids inside, in front of the TV or the home computer. The average child watches three to four hours of TV every day—leaving much less time for a game of tag or hide-and-seek.

Health experts are troubled by the growing number of young couch potatoes. New studies show that a sedentary child will likely become a sedentary adult, and a sedentary life leads to a host of health problems, from obesity to heart disease.

Children, they point out, need to be active to help them grow and develop properly.

Movement is natural

"Adults think that kids need to settle down and focus," says Judy Young, Ph.D., vice president for programs at the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. "But all that movement is a natural part of development. You can't sit still and develop well."

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education's exercise guidelines for children ages 5 to 12 call for children to exercise at least 60 minutes a day, preferably more.

"Younger children need more activity," says Dr. Young. "That's the solution for increasing obesity, not diets or medical treatments."

Statistics underline the problem. A study in the journal Pediatrics found that children spent only 10 to 16 hours a week playing, but 3 to 4 hours a day watching television.

"Clearly, some kids are spending much more time being sedentary," says Andrew Tershakovec, M.D., a weight management specialist in Philadelphia.

And that spells trouble down the road. Less active kids are more likely to have weight problems. Overweight adults are more likely to have health problems. "Adults who are inactive have heart attacks," Dr. Tershakovec says. "Children who are inactive—it would be very rare to have a heart attack—but they would have a higher risk for later."

Combo is best

So, what's a parent to do? Dr. Tershakovec suggests a combination of encouraging physical activity and limiting sedentary activities. "The family has the responsibility [to do something]," he says. "It's very easy to put the children in front of the TV." You shouldn't suddenly go cold turkey on TV watching, he says, but if you plan, you can cut back on TV time gradually.

Dr. Young points out that adults need to rethink their definition of children's activity. Adults tend to mark off their days in neat compartments: Exercise at this time, work at that time, play later. Children tend to be more freeform, and need small bursts of activity spread throughout the day.

"A lot of natural [kids'] activity is aggravating to adults," Dr. Young says. "You've been in doctor's offices, where children are on the chair and then off the chair and then on the chair. That's the kind of movement that we don't think of as exercise, but that's what it is."

At the home, Dr. Young urges parents to have a place where the kids can be active, where they can run or bike or climb. If that's not possible at home, an alternative would be a public playground, or even a walk around the neighborhood.

For children 9 and older, organized sports can be a good outlet, if chosen carefully. Make sure the sport or activity is one your child will enjoy, and one that offers lots of exercise. Just because a child is on a team, doesn't mean that he or she will get much of a chance to play.

It's also important for children to see that their parents are active. Parents, says Dr. Young, "need to be visible doing their own activities, and offer support for what the kids want to do." Parents can also encourage activities that can be done as a family, such as taking a hike or going for a bike ride.

Studies have found that if both parents are active, the children are much more likely to be active, Dr. Tershakovec says.

Guidelines for kids' exercise

Here's what the National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends for children ages 5 to 12:

  • School-aged children should accumulate at least 60 minutes and up to several hours per day of physical activity appropriate for their age.

  • Activity should be in periods of 10 to 15 minutes and include moderate to vigorous movement.

  • Long periods of inactivity are not appropriate for healthy children.

  • School-aged children should participate in a variety of activities, at varying levels of intensity.

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