Children are less fit than ever

girl on pull-up bar
Public Domain MaxPixel

Boys in 1998 could do an average of 26 sit-ups in 30 seconds. Now that number has dropped to 15.

Only three percent of British children between 5 and 18 gets the recommended amount of daily physical activity. The Chief Medical Officer in the UK has set the target at 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity, but a new study by the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth reveals that kids are further than ever from reaching that goal.

In the past, research into children's activity levels has been based on creating averages across seven days' worth of data. But averages don't paint the whole picture and tend to overestimate the percentage of children getting adequate exercise. Study author Dr. Lisa Price from the University of Exeter explained,

"Our findings suggest that just under a third of children are achieving an average of 60 minutes per day, but only 3.2 percent meet the 60-minute target every day. We were surprised to find such a big difference. We don’t know whether averaging 60 minutes a day will be different in terms of health outcomes compared to 60 minutes daily – more research is needed to look into this."

That 3.2 percent is an average, as well. Only 1.2 percent of girls within the 5-18 age group get 60 minutes of exercise daily, while it's somewhat higher for boys at 5.5 percent.

This study follows another one published last month, which found that 10-year-olds in Britain today are weaker and have less endurance than previous generations at the same age. Ten-year-old children were given physical tests in 1998, 2004, and 2014. Results were compared, showing that while kids have gotten heavier and taller in the last 16 years, muscular strength has decreased by 20 percent and endurance by 30 percent. A specific example from the Guardian:

"After taking into account body size, the team found that while boys were able to achieve just over 26 sit-ups on average in 30 seconds in 1998, the figure fell to 19.2 in 2008 and just 15.4 in 2014. For girls the figure fell from 23.9 to 10.7 between 1998 and 2014."

The reason? Kids aren't engaging in active play as much as they used to. This is partly because they're distracted by indoor screen time, but also because they're victims of a safety-obsessed culture that doesn't want them running because they may trip, or climbing trees because they could fall, or throwing snowballs because they might get hit. This translates to fewer opportunities to get strong and fit.

The fact that so few kids reach the one-hour target for daily exercise could be attributed to over-scheduling, too. How many kids have a free hour just to play after school each day – and other neighborhood kids to play with? Kids' lives are jam-packed with extra-curricular activities, and even though some of these may be sports, research has shown organized sports don't give kids as good a workout as free outdoor play does.

The findings from both studies are bleak, not only because they paint a dire picture for children's current state of health, but also because it does not bode well for their future. Lifestyle habits are established in childhood and adolescence, and if a child is not taught to incorporate daily physical activity into his or her life, it will be harder to do so in adulthood.

Children are less fit than ever
Boys in 1998 could do an average of 26 sit-ups in 30 seconds. Now that number has dropped to 15.

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