By Ken Reed

The common belief is that the United States is a sports-mad country. That’s not true. We’re a sports-spectator-mad country. We’re couch potatoes who much prefer watching sporting events — live or on TV — to actually participating in them.

Sadly, that’s also true for our children.

In a new study that used a standard 20-meter shuttle run to measure children’s fitness levels, the United States fell far behind the fittest countries, Tanzania, Iceland and Estonia and only above Mexico, Peru and Latvia.

The shuttle run used in the study was a typical “beep” test of aerobic fitness. The test is an exercise that requires continuous running between two lines 20 meters (66 feet) apart in time to recorded beeps. The time between beeps gets progressively shorter during the exercise and the test is over when the exerciser can no longer run the 20 meters in time with the beeps.

According to a CNN story on the study, “the typical 12-year-old American would run about 520 meters (1706 feet or 26 laps lasting 3.5 minutes) on the shuttle run before stopping, falling some 840 meters (2756 feet or 42 laps) behind the typical 12-year-old from Tanzania.”

The study highlights a serious issue facing our country: unfit school children are highly likely to remain unfit adults. And unfit adults have a significantly higher risk of developing, and dying from, “conditions like heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.”

The study found that wealth inequality, the gap between rich and poor in a given country, was the strongest correlate of a country’s fitness ranking. So, there’s yet another reason why the United States’ growing gap between rich and poor is a major challenge we need to address.

Making this picture even uglier is the fact that recess time is declining in our elementary schools, and the number of physical education classes in our schools, K-12, is steadily falling. This despite an array of experts stressing more activity is crucial if kids are to achieve a healthy weight and optimal fitness levels.

The only way out is to get our kids moving on a regular basis. The Office for Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends children get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise on a daily basis. That includes exercises like running, biking swimming or cardio-based sports like basketball and soccer.

Parents and local community organizations need to get more creative in developing a variety of ways to get children moving. Moreover, our education system needs to lead the way with more recess and cardiovascular-based PE. Schools also need to offer more before-and-after-school recreation activities, including intramural sports programs in which all kids can play, not just elite athletes. And movement-based learning initiatives, throughout the entire school day, need to become the norm.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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