When Walt Disney’s Pixar film WALL-E hit the big screen it seemed to be more than the next cute animation. On the surface it delivered the same warm laughs and sentimental values characteristic of its Pixar predecessors. However as viewers witnessed super obese humans whose daily activities were ordered by the technology-driven world they lived in one couldn’t help but sense a faint prophetic message that challenged us to think about the future we are creating.
Childhood obesity is a societal issue that impacts the future health workforce economy safety and leadership of this nation. The finger is often pointed (quite accurately) at wrong food choices and eating behaviors but let’s focus on the often-dismissed issue of modern changes in physical activity in children. As the age of technology and the Internet continues to fascinate and hold us captive it is easy to forget just how far the apple has fallen from the tree.
Current physical activity guidelines for Americans recommends that youth (aged 6-17 years) participate in a minimum of one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. This certainly doesn’t seem like much and may be very conservative when considering how much physical activity youth engaged in before the era of the Internet. Despite this slim recommendation the sad reality is that not even a quarter of today’s youth aged 12 to 15 years meet this requirement. High school students don’t seem to fare any better as only 27 percent meet this requirement. Comparatively screen time has increased drastically among youth and can account for direct loss of physical activity time. The average youth aged 8-18 years spends approximately 7.5 hours using entertainment media 4.5 hours watching television 1.5 hours on the computer and over an hour playing video games each day. If today’s youth spend sevenfold more time in front of a screen compared to time spent being physically active the prophetic message of WALL-E just may be closer to reality than we would like to admit.
The positive benefits of engaging in routine physical activity should give adequate motivation for changing these dire statistics among our youth. Routine physical activity supports cardiovascular health weight management and healthy blood sugar levels which are important to maintain in youth. It has also been shown to support normal brain function and therefore aid in academic performance. Physical activity that requires the body to use more oxygen can help maintain better blood flow to the brain support normal growth of brain cells and ensure that brain cells are responding efficiently to the various signals they receive. This can help memory and recall boosting academic performance. Brain powering exercise includes moderate activities such as hiking biking swimming and walking as well as more vigorous activities such as soccer baseball basketball hockey tennis jumping rope martial arts skiing and more.
Routine physical activity is also important for supporting healthy mood thought outlook and general mental health. Sadly many youth struggle with mental issues that give rise to poor achievement and quality of life. It may be prudent to question the role a sedentary life may play in poor mental health. Several studies have suggested that a healthy dose of physical activity can support optimal mental health. Physical activity increases hormones in the body known as endorphins which support pain management and can improve one’s outlook on life. Increasing blood flow and oxygen to the brain is equally advantageous for maintaining good mental health. Sedentary lifestyles rob the brain of life-invigorating oxygen nutrients and hormones that perk up the mood and improve our quality of life. It is no wonder that we feel sluggish and unproductive after being a couch potato!
Encouraging increased physical activity in children and youth should begin with time management. In this era we have chosen to displace healthy physical activity with unhealthy amounts of inactivity. Limiting screen time can be a first (and large) step in encouraging more physical activity. Affordable home-based physical activity could include a family sporting event such as biking walking or jogging. Children and youth are more likely to engage in physical activity when parents role model involvement and enjoyment in similar activity. Alternatively encouraging children to participate in community-based seasonal sporting events such as soccer baseball or others can provide a competitive and motivational opportunity for physical activity. Family memberships to a local gym may provide the opportunity to engage in a variety of events and classes together fostering both an enthusiasm for physical activity as well as quality family time.
The current trajectory of this nation in regards to our engagement in physical activity and its effects on personal and societal health is alarming and demands a change. Rather than allowing our youth to continue down this path we need to take action in promoting physical activity in our youth which just may start with a change in the adults.