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The Stunning Cost of Not Exercising… and How Municipalities and Schools Can Help

May 7, 2017

NYTimes medical reporter Gretchen Reynolds posted an article  in yesterday’s Wellness section titled “Childs Play Is Good For All of Us”. The essay describes a recent study by researchers with the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and other institutions who used a “bogglingly complex computer model of what the future could look like if we do or do not get more of our children moving.” The results?

The immediate health consequences for inactive children and their families are worrisome. Childhood obesity, which is linked to lack of exercise, is common, as is the incidence of Type 2 diabetes and other health problems related to being overweight among children as young as 6…

In the United States alone, we could expect to save more than $120 billion every year in health care and associated expenses.

One of the findings of the research team astonished me.

Recent research shows that in the United States and Europe, physical activity tends to peak at about age 7 for both boys and girls and tail off continually throughout adolescence. More than two-thirds of children in the United States rarely exercise at all.

Based on my personal experience, observations of my six grandchildren who live in very different locations, and the children in my community I would conclude that nearly all children in United States are active. But upon reflection, this anecdotal information doesn’t represent what is typical of our country: it reflects parents who live a healthy lifestyle, who promote athletics and physical activity in their children, and who themselves live a healthy life.

The high school in the college community where I live in New England has an inordinately high participation rate in athletics. The community itself has a healthy lifestyle. Apart for the well-equipped college facilities, within a six mile radius there are three large gyms with swimming pools, three large co-op markets that offer a wide selection of organic foods, and several restaurants offering vegan and vegetarian items on their menus. Road bikers, mountain bikers, rowers, and runners abound in three of the seasons and in winter many residents cross country ski on groomed trails or have three skyways within 20 miles. And the towns and college all have outing clubs that maintain a network of trails for hiking, running, and exploring. The Appalachian Trail runs through the community.

Thinking back on the prior places I lived, I realize that only 30-40% of the secondary students participated in athletics and in many locales the venues for athletics, the stores and restaurants with healthy options, and opportunities for running, biking and biking in public spaces were limited. The 66% inactivity rate among children in those communities would seem valid.

And thinking back to my experience teaching in Philadelphia in the early 1970s, it dawned on me that a 33% activity rate would be astonishingly high!  The junior high I taught in enrolled 3,000 students and had a varsity and junior varsity basketball team. No fall sports, no sports for females, and no spring sports at all. There were no nearby athletic fields and scarcely any spaces for playing basketball outdoors.

Reynolds article didn’t get into the inherent inequities of opportunity for participation in athletics. The fact that most urban areas lack places for outdoor recreation like that available to the children in our college town and most urban schools underserve the students in athletics. But it did conclude with a reminder to policy makers in schools and communities that recess and public parks are worthwhile. She quotes Dr. Bruce Lee, the director of the Global Obesity Prevention Program at Johns Hopkins and lead author of the study, who suggests that we:

Show this study to school administrators who are mulling curtailing recess and physical education classes… Talk to local planning authorities about more playing fields and parks. And if you are a parent, take your child for a bike ride, swim or jog.

Here’s hoping that more parents in the future have a place to take their children for a bike ride, swim, or jog….

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