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Promoting physical activity and exercise among children and youth

Physical inactivity has become a serious problem. For example, more than half of U.S. adults do not meet recommended levels of moderate physical activity, and one-fourth engage in no leisure time physical activity at all (Physical activity, 1996). Inactivity is more prevalent among those with lower income and education, and, beginning in adolescence, affects females more than males (NIH, 1995; Physical Activity, 1996). A pattern of inactivity, also known as sedentism, begins early in life, making the promotion of physical activity among children imperative. This Digest discusses the importance of and ways to foster activity and exercise in children.

Why is physical activity important?
Physical activity has been defined as "bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure" (Pate, Pratt et al., 1995). There is no debate about the value of physical exertion--regular physical activity has significant health benefits, and even modest increases in energy expenditure can have health-enhancing effects, including:

Childhood obesity: Cause for concern
More children today are overweight or obese than ever before. "Overweight" means that the individual weighs more than is recommended for a given height; when this excess weight is in the form of fat, health problems may develop. "Obesity" is an excess of body fat. In children obesity has been variously defined as

1. >=20% over the recommended weight for height;

2. >=85th percentile for Body Mass Index, which is calculated by
dividing weight in kilograms by height in meters squared; or

3. >=25% of weight as fat for boys and >=30% of weight as fat for girls
(Strategy Supplement, 1996).

When the percent fat definition is used, data indicate that 11% of 6-11 year olds and 14% of 12-17 year olds are obese (Strategy Supplement, 1996), double the prevalence of 30 years ago (CDC, 1996). This is of particular concern because body weight and overfatness in children are significant cardiovascular disease risk factors, and the risk tracks into adolescence and young adulthood if not checked in childhood. In addition, obese children often experience exclusion from social groups and low self-esteem.

Particularly detrimental to health is central (abdominal) body fat, which is linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Studies examining the relationship between physical activity and abdominal fat suggest that those who are more active are less likely to deposit fat in the abdominal area (NIH, 1995). Physical activity is thus a key element in the prevention and treatment of both chronic disease and obesity.

How much physical activity is enough?
Health benefits can be derived simply from becoming more physically active, but the greatest benefits come from engaging in planned and structured exercise. Cardiovascular risk factors can be reduced and physical fitness enhanced with low to moderate levels of physical activity (40-60% of a person's maximal aerobic capacity) (Blair & Connelly, 1996). And, low- to moderate-intensity activity is less likely than vigorous exercise to cause musculoskeletal injury and sudden heart attack death during exercise (a very rare occurrence even for vigorous exercisers), while it is more likely to promote continued adherence to activity (Blair & Connelly, 1996; NIH, 1995).

Current recommendations state that children and adults should strive for at least 30 minutes daily of moderate intensity physical activity (Pate, Pratt et al., 1995). An alternate approach that may be equally beneficial would be to engage in 5- (Blair & Connelly, 1996) to 10-minute (NIH, 1995) bouts of moderate intensity activity throughout the day, for a total accumulation of at least 30 minutes for adolescents and adults and 60 minutes for children (Pangrazi, Corbin, & Welk, 1996). Walking briskly or biking for pleasure or transportation, swimming, engaging in sports and games, participating in physical education, and doing tasks in the home and garden may all contribute to accumulated physical activity.

Children and adults who already engage in regular activity may benefit from more vigorous activity. The specific amount of energy expenditure needed by children to decrease their risk of cardiovascular disease is not known; for adults, approximately 3 kcals/kg of body weight/day has been recommended (Zwiren, 1993). Weight in pounds can be converted to kg by dividing by 2.2. Thus, a 140-pound person (140/2.2 = 63.6 kg) should expend about 192 kcals/day (63.6 X 3.

How can we promote physical activity among young people?

Quality daily physical education
In addition to being physically active, children need to learn fundamental motor skills and develop health related physical fitness (cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and body composition). Physical education, provided at school, is an ideal way to encourage activity and develop fitness among children and, for many children, will be their only preparation for an active lifestyle. For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), and the American Heart Association all recommend comprehensive daily physical education for children K-12.

Over the years, state requirements for daily physical education have eroded, and today no states currently have such a requirement (HEALTHY PEOPLE, 1995). Not surprisingly, only a quarter of high school students participate in daily physical education, and only 19% of high school students are active for at least 20 minutes a day during physical education class (Physical Activity, 1996). The recent School Health Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS), conducted by CDC, determined that just 47% of middle/junior high schools and 26% of high schools require at least 3 years of physical education (Pate, Small et al., 1995).

Physical education offers many benefits: development of motor skills needed for enjoyable participation in physical activities; promotion of physical fitness; increased energy expenditure; and promotion of positive attitudes toward an active lifestyle. Evidence also exists that physical education may enhance academic performance, self-concept, and mental health (Allensworth, Lawson, Nicholson, & Wyche, 1997).

Other ways to incorporate activity into the daily program
In addition to physical education, schools can promote physical activity in a variety of other ways (much of this is based on CDC, 1997):

Inactive adults have twice the mortality of adults who are at least somewhat active (Blair & Connelly, 1996). Schools that promote physical activity may have a significant impact on reducing childhood obesity, chronic disease, and, ultimately, adult mortality. Insofar as physical activity has been associated with increased academic performance, self-concept, mood, and mental health, the promotion of physical activity and exercise may also improve quality of life.


References identified with an EJ or ED number have been abstracted and are in the ERIC database. Journal articles (EJ) should be available at most research libraries; most documents (ED) are available in microfiche collections at more than 1,000 locations. Documents can also be ordered through the ERIC Document Reproduction Service: (800) 443-ERIC.

Allensworth, D., Lawson, E., Nicholson, L. & Wyche, J. (Eds.). (1997). Schools and Health: Our Nation's Investment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Blair, S. N. & Connelly, J. C. (1996). How much physical activity should we do? The case for moderate amounts and intensities of physical activity. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 67(2), 193-205. EJ 533 437

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1996). Guidelines for school health programs to promote lifelong healthy eating. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, 45(No. RR-9), 1-41.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1997). Guidelines for school and community programs to promote lifelong physical activity among young people. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, 46(No. RR-6), 1-36.

Healthy People 2000 Progress report for physical activity and fitness. (April 26, 1995). Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

National Institutes of Health. (1995). Physical Acivity and Cardiovascular Health: NIH Consensus Statement. Kensington, MD: NIH Consensus Program Information Center.

Pangrazi, R. P., Corbin, C. B., & Welk, G. J. (1996). Physical activity for children and youth. Joperd, 67(4), 38-43. EJ 528 648

Pate, R. R., Pratt, M., et al. (1995). Physical activity and public health: A recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine. JAMA, 273(5), 402-407.

Pate, R. R., Small, M. L., Ross, J. G., Young, J. C., Flint, K. H. & Warren, C. W. (1995). School physical education. Journal of School Health, 65(8), 339-343. EJ 520 865

Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon-General. (1996). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Strategy Development Workshop for Public Education on Weight and Obesity(September 24-25, 1992). Summary Report. (1994). Bethesda, MD: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. ED 382 621

Zwiren, L.D. (1993). The public health perspective: Implications for the elementary physical education curriculum. In M. L. Leppo (Ed.), Healthy from the start: New perspectives of childhood fitness (pp. 25-40). Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education. ED 352 357

This Feature is an ERIC Digest and is in the public domain.