For Kids' Health, Just Let Them Play
By Dan Peterson
Health science researchers at the University of Exeter have found that kids' natural short bursts of play energy contribute just as much to a healthy lifestyle as longer bouts of organized exercise, such as gym class.
As of 2008, 32 percent of U.S. children were overweight or obese, as measured by their body mass index. While many organized programs have studied this epidemic, the prescription remains the same: less food, more exercise.
In fact, a previous health science study of 133 children found that the physical activity of the obese children over a three-week period was 35 prcent less during school days and 65 percent less on weekends compared to the children who were within accepted healthy weight norms.
In the new study, Michelle Stone and Roger Eston of Exeter's School of Sport and Health Sciences measured the activity level of 47 boys aged between 8 and 10 over seven days using an accelerometer strapped to each boy's hip (similar to the one inside your iPhone or Wii controller that senses motion).
The key was to find a model that would record the shortest bursts of energy, sometimes less than 2 seconds. As any boy's parents know, those spurts can happen all afternoon, whether it be chasing the dog, throwing rocks in the lake or climbing a tree.
The researchers also measured waist circumference, aerobic fitness and blood pressure of each boy. They found that even though their activity levels came in many short chunks, their health indicators were all in the normal range.
Stone explains their conclusion, "Our study suggests that physical activity is associated with health, irrespective of whether it is accumulated in short bursts or long bouts. Previous research has shown that children are more naturally inclined to engage in short bursts of running, jumping and playing with a ball, and do not tend to sustain bouts of exercise lasting five or more minutes. This is especially true for activities that are more vigorous in nature.
Their findings are in the April edition of the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity.
The researchers admit that more research is needed to measure long-term effects on health. Establishing activity guidelines for parents and schools will help the kids plan time to move each day.
So, more recess and less physical education in our schools? Maybe, according to Stone, "If future research backs up our findings, we would do better to encourage young children to do what they do naturally, rather than trying to enforce long exercise sessions on them. This could be a useful way of improving enjoyment and sustainability of healthy physical activity levels in childhood."
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