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America's Kids at Risk

They're fat. Out of shape. Sedentary. Where did we go wrong?

WebMD Feature

April 10, 2000 (San Francisco) -- Ask any parent of a little kid and they'll tell you that their wiggly-squiggly wee one is constantly in motion -- chasing birds, scrambling up hills, and booting balls. But it's become a sad fact of American life that many of these frisky small fry wind up out of shape and overweight by the time they reach their teens.

The latest statistics are all too familiar: Only 25% of the nation's high school students participate in physical education (PE) classes, according to the Surgeon General's "Healthy People 2000" update. American teenagers work up a sweat far less often than their peers in many other countries, reports a recent World Health Organization survey. And even though most U.S. middle schools have designated areas for exercise, few students visit them except when forced to for PE classes, finds a study published in the January issue of Preventive Medicine.

To change this dismal state of affairs, researchers have begun to focus on the early teen years as the most critical time to keep kids' interest in physical activity from flagging. The right interventions during adolescence, they say, give kids the best chance of developing an exercise habit that will stick with them for life.

Some of the reasons energetic adolescents become sluggish teens are familiar to anyone who's struggled to make exercise an everyday practice. "Kids live in the same world we do," says Russ Pate, PhD, an exercise physiologist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "They have the same attractive sedentary pursuits -- TV, videos, and computers -- staring them in the face." But Pate and other experts agree that children face a host of obstacles all their own, including limited PE classes, cutbacks in school recesses, and a lack of safe places in which to play.

For kids hitting their teen years, just getting rid of these barriers may not be enough. During the middle-school years, says Thom McKenzie, PhD, a physical activity researcher at San Diego State University, differences in students' size, strength, and skills become more pronounced, leading to a bigger gulf between the jocks and everybody else. Kids who aren't highly athletic often get turned off around this time. Indeed, McKenzie and his colleagues published a study in the January 2000 issue of Preventive Medicine showing that only about 30% of boys and 8% of girls in 24 Southern California middle schools visited the gym, weight room, basketball court, or other play spaces during lunchtime. And most of those who did just stood around instead of playing.

But researchers say that parents can make a difference, even at this difficult age. It's vital, they say, that parents help their children find an activity they like -- and help them keep up with it.

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