Teens are as inactive as 60-year-olds

Aren't young people supposed to be filled with boundless energy? There's something very wrong with this picture.

“Nineteen is the new 60,” Lenore Skenazy wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal. Now, as every parent knows, there are a lot of ways in which teens act older than their age, but in this context Skenazy is referring to the dire lack of physical activity among teenagers, whose lifestyles resemble those of near-retirees more than the energetic young’uns they’re supposed to be.

A recently published study, conducted by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, gave tracking devices to more than 12,500 participants of various ages, in order to measure how much time was spent sedentary or engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. What researchers found was that teenage activity is at an all-time low, worse than young adults in their twenties, when the frequency and intensity of exercise tends to pick up.

The study’s senior author, Vadim Zipunnikov, described activity levels at the end of adolescence as being “alarmingly low,” and by age 19, “comparable to 60-year-olds.”

Skenazy writes:

“In elementary school, a quarter of the boys and half the girls weren’t getting even a single hour of ‘moderate-to-vigorous activity’ each day. By ages 12 to 19, those figures were even worse. American kids reach their Geritol years before they’re old enough to drink.”

What’s going on?

Not surprisingly, Skenazy, who founded the modern Free Range Kids movement (that we at TreeHugger love), blames a culture of hyper-parenting, where every hour of a child’s life is scheduled and parents spend much of the day ferrying around their offspring in vehicles to (mostly sedentary) extracurriculars. She points out that, even when kids participate in group sports, studies have shown these adult-led practices and games to result in less physical activity than if kids were playing an unsupervised pick-up game.

Another obstacle is parental paranoia, since many parents do not want to let their kids play outside unattended:

“The idea of running home for milk and Twinkies, then heading out to play till twilight sounds like something out of ‘The Hardy Boys.’ (Google away, young’uns.) Parents have actually been arrested for letting their kids romp outside on their own, even though crime rates today are lower than a generation ago.”

One could also point a finger at the popularity of handheld devices and unchecked screen time. It's hard to run around while playing an addictive video game. Unless parents place strict limits on such activities, a pleasure-seeking teen will have difficulty tearing themselves away.

Study author Vipunnikov thinks that scheduling can be used to kids’ advantage. “For school-age children, the primary window for activity was the afternoon between two and six P.M. So the big question is how do we modify daily schedules, in schools for example, to be more conducive to increasing physical activity?”

Skenazy’s solution is to keep schools open till 6 p.m. It’s cheap, safe, and the kids are already there. Students could be left to their own devices.

“As for the parents—woo-hoo! They wouldn’t have to pick up the children and drive them to yet another activity. True, playing tag in a gym isn’t learning Mandarin or violin or gymnastics, but it does build crucial skills like focus, creativity and leadership. Kids solve their own arguments. They organize games, an early lesson in project management (only fun).”

It’s tough to imagine many parents going for this option, since letting go is precisely the opposite of working to pad a teen’s college application with unusual and expensive experiences. But, as adolescent health deteriorates at a rate better suited to that of a much older person, hopefully parents will wake up and realize it’s not worth it -- that free play time is really where it's at.

Tags: Health | Kids

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