Youth Movement

Gym classes a vanishing. Passive entertainments are multiplying. The country has an out-of-control obesity problem. How can we stop the next generation from getting lost in the shuffle.

Remember the body challenges of your middle-school years – the unpredictable growth spurts; the mysterious emergence of bosoms, biceps and body hair; the chronic clumsiness; the squeaky voice? That wasn’t an easy time for most of us, but when it comes to maintaining any kind of bodily self-possession, today’s kids may have it even worse.

Relentless junk-food marketing and hours of Xbox are packing on unhealthy pounds at the same time that school recess times and PE classes are being reduced or eliminated altogether. With the corner sandlots and green spaces of yesteryear disappearing under big-box retail and housing developments, there are fewer neighborhood spots for informal games. And with the increasing competitiveness of team sports at school, kids who aren’t natural athletes are often permanently sidelined from organized games well before they’ve turned 12.

Expectations regarding social maturity are in transition, too. Many teens and tweens (as preteens are sometimes called) feel too grown up for playing tag or riding bikes but are still too young to be at ease (or welcome) working out at adult gyms. Meanwhile, a flood of electronic entertainments – including a seemingly endless choice of cable and satellite channels – have rushed in to fill the void, capturing an alarming amount of our kids’ time and attention.

A Move Toward Movement

The lack of regular activity among tweens and teens is a growing concern in this country – even for people who don’t have kids. As a culture, we’re beginning to perceive that unless our young people get moving soon, the up-and-coming generation will soon be facing some major health problems. “It’s reasonable to assume that inactive kids will suffer effects in heart and bone health at some later point if they don’t get active now,” says Thom McKenzie, PhD, a San Diego State University professor of exercise and nutritional sciences who studies kids’ activity rates.

Naturally, an unhealthy generation has huge, worrisome economic and societal implications for the entire country (particularly as out-of-shape kids grow into sickly adults). But it’s also just plain heartbreaking to contemplate an entire generation of kids missing out on the discovery and fun of active experiences they’re hardwired to enjoy. It’s disconcerting to think about them missing a crucial window of opportunity for forming healthy habits they could and should be carrying into adult life. The good news is that we can reach kids who are currently blasé – or just plain befuddled – about physical fitness. All it typically takes is a little sleuthing to help tweens and teens find their activity groove. Even though PE may be on the wane during school hours, some forward-thinking community organizations and health clubs are trying to take up the slack, offering loads of youth-friendly exercise options.

These days, kids can choose from a cornucopia of classes – from hip-hop dance to rock climbing – offered through park-and-rec, community ed and health-club member-activities programs. Gym classes and entire gyms are now being designed specifically for tweens and teens. But kids need their parents to help them investigate their options, and perhaps point them in the right direction.

Active Pursuits

For kids, being active is all about fun, discovery and engagement. Even the most well-intentioned parental lectures on the merits of healthy living are likely to be met with rolling eyes. And hearing one too many suggestions that they need to “get some exercise” can be downright destructive to a heavier kid’s self-esteem. But when you help your older children find something they authentically love to do – particularly something that lets them experience the pride of mastering something new – they’ll be far more eager to invest themselves in the process.

Evidence suggests that simply keeping kids engaged in almost any kind of extracurricular activity can boost their overall fitness by cutting down on TV time.

A 2000 study by Sara Gable, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, examined 65 households of 6- to 10-year-olds and found that obese children spent more time watching television, engaged in less active play and participated in fewer extracurricular activities than their healthier peers. So it makes sense that just being out of the house – and away from the TV – can significantly increase a kid’s chance of being more active.

But what if your teen has no abiding passions? Have him or her join some social organizations like student government, school clubs, and Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. “In terms of motivation to get outside, making new friends has always been a motivating factor for me,” says Riley Curran, 17, of Minneapolis.

Curran notes that joining the National Honor Society and participating in school musicals led him to get involved in fundraising, where he would walk several hours a day, going door to door, to raise money for the local children’s hospital and collect canned goods for food drives. “Not only was I getting to know new people, I was also getting a lot of exercise in the process,” he says.

Scouting also played a big role for Curran, in developing his love of nature and active pursuits (he’s now an Eagle Scout). Today, an abiding concern for the environment keeps him busy with community and nonprofit activities several days a week.

No Parking

Young bodies are meant to move, to get stronger and faster – not to conform to the shape of the couch. Over time, a sedentary kid is likely to become a less-than-healthy kid. Lack of activity negatively affects not only kids’ bodies but their mental and emotional outlook as well.

Of course, some kids are overscheduled with active pursuits and need a little more downtime, but if your child is chronically couchbound, you may need to take some action to get him or her moving.

The first step parents should take to get their youngsters up-and-at-’em is to conduct a few simple tests to determine their current fitness level: Try walking briskly with your child for several blocks while chatting. “If he gets red in the face and starts sweating and it’s hard to keep up a conversation, he may need some help,” says McKenzie.

Evaluating muscle strength is as easy as having your daughter or son carry a couple of weighty bags of groceries from the car to the house. If he or she has to set them down midway, McKenzie suggests, your kid’s muscles may need some work.

Next, investigate some potential active pursuits for your child. If she is already casually interested in a physical activity, like skateboarding or rock climbing, for example, seek out additional venues where she can learn and participate more. No real active interests as of yet? Check the newspaper for youth-fitness classes offered by community groups, or call your local park-and-recreation or county health department to see if there’s anything that might hold some appeal. Youth organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs are also good sources.

Talk over the options with your youngster and let him or her decide what looks fun or interesting. Kids will be much more enthusiastic about an activity that doesn’t appear to be getting forced down their throat.

Keep in mind that your children are more likely to develop an interest in active pastimes if they have active heroes and role models they can emulate. Seek out opportunities for your kids to observe cool and accomplished adults in action.

This is one time when the TV can be your ally, but generally, the more immediate, realistic and personal the interaction, the bigger the impact. Watching nothing but over-the-top pro and extreme sports from a distance may actually leave your kid feeling that such extraordinary feats are beyond his or her reach. Consider attending lower-key local amateur events, like triathlons, bike races and collegiate games.

Finally, think long-term and big-picture, and remember that the goal is to get and keep your child moving for the long haul. Don’t be upset if yours seems a bit fickle. Once kids have explored a given activity for a while, it’s normal for them to get bored and begin looking for the next big thing. With luck, they will build a wardrobe of different activities they can enjoy at different intervals.

Building Enthusiasm

Although exposure to outside activities, role models and learning experiences can go a long way toward developing a kid’s fitness enthusiasm, what’s most essential is an active family atmosphere. Kids are far more likely to be physically engaged in households where “having fun by being active” is not some hypothetical concept, but, rather, standard operating procedure.

“Parents who model an authentic love of activity are one of the most important influences on a child,” says Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, which has inspired more than 275,000 girls to get moving through its GoGirlGo! program since its debut this year. (For more on GoGirlGo! see page 24.)

Here are some strategies to transform your kid’s sedentary surroundings into a more action-positive context:

Take a Walk: For families with a lot of couch-potato history, regular walks are the easiest and most convenient way to begin developing a fitness habit. Instead of drifting off to the TV after dinner, why not take a family walk around the neighborhood? If your kids need an incentive, take a cue from some successful state walking programs: Several states, including Texas, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky, have organized walking teams that compete for the most miles logged. “Kids especially love friendly competition,” says Carol Rice, founder of Walk Across Texas (http://walkacrosstexas.tamu.edu), which aims to cut the risk of heart disease and diabetes through walking.

Establish your own walking competition, complete with rewards for met goals, such as logging a certain number of miles per week or month. Each family member can clip on an inexpensive pedometer to clock individual miles (kids love to see their meters clicking up with each step). But in designing any competition, consider your kids’ personalities, and keep in mind that stoking sibling rivalries can backfire. It might work better to compete in multiperson teams, or to pool family miles toward a common goal. Be sure to let the kids choose the incentives, which might range from a small cash reward to an outing at a favorite destination.

Get a Buddy: Just like grownups, tweens and teens can benefit from having a workout buddy who offers companionship, motivation and help keeping them true to their goals. “There’s an energy and synergy that comes with doing something active with your friends,” says Steve Rosga, coordinator for the Life Time Fitness Athletic Performance Enhancement program. Rosga leads 8- to 18-year-olds in speed and agility training at the Plymouth and Chanhassen, Minn., clubs. Whether the kids are competing in team sports or just tossing a ball for fun, the camaraderie helps keep them motivated. “They’re inspired to keep at it because they see other kids doing it and getting better,” Rosga explains. So whatever your kid’s activity, encourage him or her to find a friend or classmate to join in.

Make It a Family Affair: Even if you’re an active person, don’t assume that your tweens or teens will find fitness as enticing as you do. If they frown at joining your morning run or if visiting the gym leaves them cold, try something the entire family can agree on, like a regular Sunday swim at a local lake or indoor rec pool.

Lobby for More Play Space: Team sports aren’t your kid’s thing? Follow the lead of Minneapolis-based Keep ‘Em All Playing. The organization works to create a happy medium for kids who don’t particularly like competitive team sports yet are still interested in low-key sports opportunities. Keep ‘Em All Playing lobbies the city’s park system to free up playing-field space and time. (Currently, many fields are reserved for competitive games.) Such moves can create more chances for casual pickup team sports. In the meantime, try organizing something yourself. For instance, rally the neighborhood kids to play softball with rotating positions. All you need is eight players, a bat, a ball, and a big field or backyard.

It Takes a Village

If you’re frustrated by the sorry state of affairs at your kid’s school, or the state of your kid’s health, don’t think you’re alone. And don’t hesitate to get involved by contacting local administrators and legislators.

Thanks in part to pressure from concerned parents, a growing number of community forces from several sectors – government, health and business – have woken up to the long-term problem of inactive kids and are now stepping up to the plate. They are helping to expand recreation opportunities and to fuel the launch of more kid-friendly activities.

These new programs, which are often modestly priced or even free, go beyond the mundane park-and-rec model of yore. Now there’s a new emphasis on a wide variety of often-noncompetitive games and skills. Health agencies and outdoor organizations are also pulling out all the stops to inspire inactive kids. Hearts N’ Parks, a coalition effort of the National Institutes of Health and the National Recreation and Park Association, offers some 150 programs that aim to get more youngsters active in their local parks. (See www.nhlbi. nih.gov/health/prof/heart/obesity/hrt_n_pk for more info.)

In Arizona, teens flock to the night hikes, mountain biking and orienteering offered through Phoenix’s park program. “Activities like these are great for kids who aren’t into sports,” says ranger Jeff Spellman. “All you have to do is pique their interest, and they’re all over it.” More traditional community resources are also shaking up their youth programs. Organizations like the YWCA, YMCA and Jewish Community Centers now offer tween-tailored approaches, from specialized dance classes and separate kid gyms to one-on-one trainer interactions designed to keep kids from losing interest in fitness.

Even the health-club industry is doing its part. Many clubs welcome tweens and teens in the weight room and cardio classes. But for an easily intimidated youngster who must be sold on exercise, a kids-only health club or personal trainer can be the winning ticket. “Kids who don’t have skills or enthusiasm shouldn’t get discouraged from activity,” says Cory Bertisch, CEO of My Gym, the 150-plus fitness centers marketed to kids up to 13 years old. The staff are trained to use tactics and language that help youngsters feel successful at doing various activities, which range from gymnastic options to cardio-focused workout circuits.

“The key thing with kids is to use terminology and techniques that don’t put them off or make them think exercise is something you do because it’s ‘good for you,'” says Rosga. He adds that good youth class leaders keep kids hopping by varying activities and sweating along with them. “The kids just think they’re having fun,” he says. But at the same time, they learn proper exercise form, which pays off in increased competence and self-confidence. That increased confidence, says Rosga, shows up in other areas of a kid’s life, such as academics.

As a rule, a low teacher-to-student ratio is the best way to ensure that kids receive individualized help and attention. With this in mind, some parents are taking the personal attention a step further by getting an individual or small-group fitness trainer for their tween or teen.

Just like adults, kids benefit from one-on-one expertise, encouragement and praise, says Patrick Mediate, a personal trainer for several 8- to 15-year-olds at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn. “Sometimes a kid will respond better to a stranger than a parent or teacher,” he says. (For more information on finding experienced and certified trainers for kids, go to the National Strength and Conditioning Association Web site, www.nsca-lift.org, or inquire with the personal training department at your health club.)

Integrating Activity

It used to be that the typical afterschool program consisted of cartoons and a bag of Cheetos. But nowadays there is a push for more imaginative, high-energy afterschool activities. These new programs feature fitness-minded, fun activities, from gardening and rowing clubs to rock climbing and yoga. They are also magnets for college students and adult volunteers, who provide a trainerlike mentoring role, another advantage for kids who may need guidance, says Jennifer Rinehart, associate director of the Afterschool Alliance, which advocates for quality afterschool care. (For more information on these types of afterschool programs in your state, visit www.afterschoolalliance.org.)

But even as parents strategize, looking for activities to inspire their own tweens and teens, many fitness advocates are asserting that the best approach to overcoming the problem of inactive kids is for everyone to adopt a “we’re in this together” attitude.

“We need to return to the design that made exercise a part of life for kids, like sidewalks and paths to walk and bike to school,” says McKenzie of San Diego State University. As an example, he points to some communities that have created “pocket parks,” which transform small areas into accessible exercise and recreation opportunities.

“If we really want to make our kids more active,” adds McKenzie, “we’ve got to approach this from a public-health point of view and involve the whole community.”

Helen Cordes, editor of the parenting publication Daughters (www.daughters.com), is currently writing about childhood-obesity solutions through a University of Maryland Journalism Fellowship in Child and Family Policy.

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