June 13, 2005 -- Kids need at least an hour a day of physical activity to ensure good health, according to the findings of a CDC-backed expert panel.
As childhood obesity climbs to record levels and school-based physical education programs seem increasingly endangered, panel members say they hope the recommendations will serve as a wake-up call to parents, doctors, public health officials, and school administrators.
Panel co-chairman William B. Strong, MD, tells WebMD that children are far more likely to get no exercise over the course of a day than a full 60 minutes.
"Obesity is a significant problem in the young as well as the old," he says. "If we don't do something to get children moving we are going to have a phenomenal epidemic of obesity-related diseases 20 to 30 years from now."
5 Minutes a Day
Strong says his own research suggests that 8- to 11-year-olds get an average of about five minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day. And a government-funded study recently showed that children typically get less than 25 minutes of exercise a week in school-based physical education programs.
The panel was convened because there was no consensus on the amount of physical activity children actually need.
"We know that adults need 30 minutes (of moderate to vigorous exercise) a day for cardiovascular fitness, 60 minutes for weight management, and probably more than that for weight loss" says panel member Stephen R. Daniels, MD, PhD. "But we don't know as much about the needs of children."
The 13-member independent panel reviewed published studies and abstracts assessing the impact of physical activity on a wide range of health issues in children.
The review was funded by the CDC's nutrition and physical activity and adolescent and school health divisions. The findings are published in the June issue of the Journal of Pediatrics.
Daniels says the review highlighted the need for good research on exercise and health in children. The CDC's William Dietz, MD, PhD, made the same point in an editorial accompanying the study.
Dietz wrote that "the gap in knowledge identified by the review provides the basis for research for years to come."
"No studies have yet prospectively defined the amount of physical activity necessary to prevent excessive weight gain in children or adolescents," he added.
PE Under Siege
All the experts contacted by WebMD agreed that the lack of opportunity for exercise during the school day is a big part of the problem. With the increasing emphasis on raising test scores, physical education classes are disappearing from the nation's middle and high schools and many elementary schools have done away with recess.
"Especially at the elementary level, kids need to get out and run around," panel co-chairman Robert M. Malina, PhD, tells WebMD. "It is abnormal for a youngster to sit all day with no opportunity to use up all that energy."
The panel presented evidence that physical activity actually helps children perform better academically. Strong acknowledges that the data are not conclusive, but he says it is clear that regular physical activity doesn't hurt school performance.
The CDC recommends daily physical education from kindergarten through 12th grade. But few schools comply, citing budget restrictions and increasing academic demands which eat up the school day.
"It may be that we need to extend the school day or include physical activity in after-school programs," Strong says.
And while schools are critical, all agree that parents are, too. The best way to encourage exercise in children is to set a good example, they say.
"The evidence is very clear that if parents are active their children will be more likely to be active, too," Malina says.