Overweight and obesity are compromising the childhood of far too many young Americans and putting their future well-being at risk. It’s the topic du jour for good reason, though the focus perhaps skews toward nutrition while underplaying the role of physical activity and exercise. How, then, can we encourage children and adolescents to be more active? I’d like to suggest a few strategies and invite your thoughts.
Build on what works
One good place to start is by doing more of what is already working. We know from research and observation that when students are more physically active they learn more, behave better and earn higher grades. Physical Education classes are important, but are just part of the picture. Can we encourage kids to walk or bike to school, perhaps through “walking school bus” programs or bike lanes? In one study, third- and fourth-graders showed improved on-task behavior after their schools instituted 10-minute, daily periods of in-classroom physical activity.
Sports bring many benefits to those who participate. Some people—particularly children and adolescents with poor body image or who lack confidence—may be reluctant to join a team or league. One answer may be to increase opportunities for noncompetitive games. A quick Internet search will turn up a wealth of ideas for any age group.
Another strategy gets to young people where they live: in constant contact, on line and gaming. Peer power and opinion leaders exert a pull on all of us, but never more than during our formative years. Why not harness that inexorable force and use it to promote physical activity? Imagine the cascade of Twitter tweets if the “cool kids” start spreading the word that they’re in the park, jogging or playing Ultimate Frisbee. What if a critical mass of Facebook status updates showed that “everyone” was hitting bike trails or trampolines after school?
Further harnessing technology for the cause; let’s not ignore the explosive popularity of video games. Wii Fit Baseball may not burn as many calories as the real thing, but it’s bound to be healthier in all respects than Cosmic Assassins III. Why not think of gift occasions as opportunities to promote active, healthy play with presents both high-tech and traditional? While a smart phone or cable TV subscription may be on the gift list, a gym membership or ball glove might spur a youngster to be a bit more active—and maybe even include the parents.
What strategies can you suggest to encourage children and adolescents to be more active?