Childhood obesity has become one of the most widespread public health problems in the United States, and it has received tremendous media attention in recent years. Obesity in children and adolescents has been thought to be a significant risk factor for cardiac disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure later in life. How can we develop healthier children?

Physical activity is felt to be one of the best means of combating childhood obesity. In addition to being associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, it is believed to be associated with better mental health and social skills. A study in the January 2011 issue of Health Psychology even suggests that regular exercise improves the ability for children to think and do math.

Getting kids playing outside with their friends might lead to healthier children

The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition has been established to educate and stimulate Americans of all ages to adopt a healthier, more active lifestyle. It promotes the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which could help decrease childhood obesity.

The basic principle of the Guidelines is simple. Children and adolescents should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Most of this activity should be moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity that increases cardiorespiratory fitness. Also, physical activity should incorporate muscle-strengthening activities three times per week, and bone-strengthening activities should be involved three times per week as well.

Do American children meet the Guidelines?

Does much of the childhood population engage in that level of physical activity, and does that activity level increase or decrease over time? Laura Basterfield et al. published a study in the January 2011 edition of Pediatrics that showed that the physical activity levels of children are low. They found that the children averaged 26 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at an average of 7 years old and 24 minutes per day at an average of 9 years old. Only 6.4% of children averaged the recommended 60 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at age 7 and 5.7% did at age 9. Tweet this statistic.

A proposed solution for healthier children

As gloomy as this data seems, there might be a fairly simple solution. Russell Jago et al. published a study in the February 2011 edition of Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise looking at the influence of best friends on a child’s physical activity level. The authors determined that the physical activity levels of 10- to 11-year-old children were closely related to physical activity levels of their best friends.

Encouraging children and adolescents to get outside with their friends and play will largely meet the Physical Activity Guidelines. It really isn’t that complicated. There are numerous examples of activities that kids can do together that are both fun and also have aerobic, muscle-strengthening, and bone-strengthening properties.

For example, riding a bicycle or walking a dog can serve as moderate-intensity aerobic activity. Games with friends, such as playing tag, or more formal sports, are terrific ways to get vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Likewise, playing on playground equipment, playing tug of war, or climbing a tree are muscle-strengthening activities, while push-ups, sit-ups, or more formal resistance training can be used by older adolescents. Impact sports and activities, such as running, jumping rope, and formal sports like tennis and volleyball can help strengthen bones.

It is important to remember that children and adolescents should meet these Guidelines with a variety of activities. Engaging in activities that stress different body parts will avoid overuse issues and decrease the chance of injury.

Patterns of low levels of activity and high levels of sedentary activity are established in childhood and only get worse as they get older. Let’s work to get kids outside playing with their friends, exercising, and playing sports to develop healthier children.

Note: I wrote the following post for the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. It appears on the Be Active Your Way blog of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.