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Good Health Magazine : FITNESS : TOTS TO TEENS : A FLIGHT FROM FITNESS : THE IMAGE OF AMERICAN YOUTH AS ROBUST AND ENERGETIC IS HEAVILY TARNISHED. TODAY'S YOUNG COUCH POTATOES ARE GENERALLY HEAVIER, MORE SEDENTARY AND LESS INTERESTED IN PHYSICAL ACTIVITY THAN EVER BEFORE.

April 28, 1991|SHARI ROAN | Roan is a health writer for The Times

Dorothea Evans recently spent $300 on a private exercise and nutrition class to help her 15-year-old daughter lose the 20 pounds the teen-ager had gained during her first year of high school.

The South Bay family also shells out about $70 a month for their daughter and a son, age 10, to participate in private swim teams and soccer leagues.

And recently, Evans dashed off a letter to the principal of her daughter's school complaining of the lack of physical activities for children who aren't athletic enough to make the school's competitive sports teams.

Evans explains her and her husband's efforts on behalf of their children this way: "If we don't do it, they'll end up eating potato chips and watching TV."

According to health experts, this conscientious mother has good reason to be concerned.

A decade's worth of fitness tests and medical studies conclude that children in the United States today are generally heavier, more sedentary and less interested in physical activity than ever before. The harshest of these studies predict that today's young generation of couch potatoes will take their poor health habits into adulthood at a cost of billions in preventable medical problems.

Most experts blame this declining fitness on three factors: the deterioration of physical-fitness instruction in schools (largely due to financial constraints that forced cutbacks in non-academic subjects); social and lifestyle changes that influence children to remain indoors (TV and video games) and environmental factors (such as pollution and crime that in some areas make it unsafe for children to play outside).

"The child has very little control over many elements in his life that cause poor health," says Vern Seefeldt, director of the the Youth Sports Institute at Michigan State University, a program dedicated to fitness research and education.

But something must be done to improve the fitness level among the nation's children. At the very least, fitness experts agree that several decades of direct education cutbacks has caused the erosion of physical education in the nation's schools, a costly mistake, Seefeldt says.

"I think we have more consensus about this because the prestige of physical education in schools is lower than it has ever been," Seefeldt says.

Studies on fitness achievement show that the image of the American youth as robust and energetic is heavily tarnished. A 1989 study based on one of the most respected assessments of childhood physical education in the nation--the Chrysler Fund Amateur Athletic Union Physical Fitness Program--found that the proportion of children reaching or exceeding the minimal standards on four fitness tests had declined from 43% to 32%. Of the 9 million children tested, ages 6 to 17, only 6% attained a fitness level considered outstanding.

Children did just as poorly in a similar assessment conducted in California in 1988 and 1989. Only 17% of fifth-graders, 21% of seventh-graders and 26% of ninth-graders were able to meet four out of five fitness standards. The test was developed by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, a respected fitness organization.

Other medical evidence has begun to outline the consequences of poor childhood fitness levels, the most obvious being obesity.

According to the AAU-Chrysler study, the average weight among 12- and 13-year-old boys increased eight pounds over the past decade with only a slight increase in height.

Since the 1960s, obesity has increased almost 54% among 6- to 11-year-olds and 39% among 12- to 17-year-olds, according to a May, 1987, study by Tufts New England Medical Center and the Harvard School of Public Health Research.

The lack of aerobic exercise combined with a diet high in fat, salt and sugar presage future appointments with a cardiologist in children as young as age 5, studies suggest.

Twenty percent to 30% of children ages 3 to 18 have above-average blood cholesterol levels, the American Health Foundation reported last year. And high blood cholesterol levels in children ages 2 to 20 are directly correlated to TV watching, UC Irvine researchers found recently. According to the study's co-author, Kurt V. Gold, the three hours the average American child spends each day watching TV, during which the child could be physically active, exposes the child to ads promoting junk foods, which lead to incessant snacking.

Findings of high cholesterol in children are supported by other studies, although experts dispute whether high cholesterol levels in childhood are a predictor of cholesterol problems in adulthood. But by age 5, many children exhibit some of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease seen in adults, researchers report in a September study in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

According to the authors, poor fitness habits early in life may become permanent, leading to excessive obesity and increased cardiovascular risk later in life.

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