At the current Canadian Cardiovascular Congress held October 24 – 28, a 7-year study was released which looked at 20,719 grade 9 students. Most notably, in the findings were that cholesterol levels grew from 9% in 2002 to 16% in 2008 of the 14-15 year old students studied. This translates to almost one in five teens being at a very high risk of developing either Type 2 Diabetes or premature heart disease. Concurrently, the study found that levels of 90 minutes physical activity (at least 5 days a week) dropped from 28% to 22% in the same time period.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to read into this study: youth today need to be more active. The elephant in the room that no one is talking about is: How?
Consider these reasons:
Ø Right from the time infants are able to walk, restrictive activity is enacted and only due to the social aspects of how we live and work today. Structure is introduced at a very early stage of growth, mandating the times of where, when, and what activity will be available to the toddlers, especially for those who attend a day-care or similar facility. Statistics indicate that ‘stay-at-home’ mothers/fathers raise children who not only eat better, but also engage in more physical exercise.
Ø As children age, the tendency is to enroll them into some sort of group or sporting team based on interest and availability. In a UK study released in March 2009, it was found that the cost of sport and cultural activities rose by 67% over the past 10 years. Compounding this rise in costs is the decreased cost for technological products like video games, DVDs, cell phones, et al; which fell between 17 – 29% depending on the category.
Ø Let’s not forget about protecting children from harm. There are about 16,200,000 Google matches for the search phrase “protecting children”. Everything from sex, to predators, violence, food, the environment, to you name it: there’s a way to protect your child from it. Today’s parents have more information at their fingertips on the perils and cautions of raising a child then those of earlier years. Being cautious and apprehensive becomes natural, as a result of being more aware of the risks. I wrote an earlier piece on “Fear”, and how rules and practices are enacted just on the anticipation of something wrong…this carries into the home life as well.
Ø Certain stereotypical perceptions can affect a willingness to engage in organized activities. There is the “hockey parent” who is affectionately known as overbearing and verbally abusive; who can in affect cause individuals to lose interest in getting their children involved just because they don’t want to expose themselves or their children to this type of boorish behavior.
Ø And then there’s the issue of competitiveness. According to the National Alliance for Sports (US) some 20 million kids register each year for a myriad of sports activities. However, approximately 70% of them quit playing by the age of 13, and never play them again. The number one reason according to the National Youth Sports Coaches Association is that they quit because it stopped being fun. As children age, the introduction of ‘winning’ versus ‘losing’ overrides the premise of playing ‘just for fun’. While I’m not advocating removing this mindset…in fact, I believe it is essential to a child’s preparedness for adulthood; there remains a lack of objectives around ‘house league’ versus ‘competitive (rep/select) league’ play. While it’s okay to lose a ‘house league’ game, one shouldn’t feel demeaned by their coach/parent/peer just because they chose to play at that level. As it is, they chose to play at that level either for the reason that they didn’t want to play competitively, or lacked the ability (something that parents far too often interject their opinions).
We have a ways to go to remove barriers impeding healthy active lifestyles in youth. Everything from affordability to setting standards and expectations of play. At the risk of sounding like grandpa on the front porch, sipping lemonade and spinning tales of old…I remember when I was involved in coaching soccer in London, Ontario: we had simple rules for play; non-sponsored teams; simple rules for the parents; (a rule that after 4 weeks of play, we could move players around to even up the teams – although parents of kids on the stronger teams opposed this ideology, especially if their kid was the one to move to a weaker team); substitutions were structured to ensure fair play for all; we kept score, and posted the standings; everyone made the playoffs. Most importantly, there was open communication to all parents and players. While it wasn’t a perfect system, I would have to say it was by far the most enjoyable for me as a coach, parent, and participant (we later started an adult mini-soccer league using the same guidelines…it was a hit!)
It is also imperative that we look at the affordability of participation. All too often, youth are left behind due to the high cost in being active. Much like the high cost of healthy eating, just being physically active also carries a healthy price tag (pun intended).