Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: My husband and I have a running battle with two of our three kids, who have zero interest in anything that isn't on a screen. They're 11 and 13, so rational arguments about their adult health don't work. Just how important is it for kids to get regular exercise?

Dear Reader: We all want the best for our kids, which is often how those smartphones, tablets and video game consoles get into their hands in the first place. But as you rightly observe, children need a certain amount of physical activity in their lives for optimum health. Decades of research have (repeatedly) shown that adults who are physically fit have a decreased risk of developing chronic illnesses and conditions like heart disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and diabetes. And as we've explored in recent columns, physical fitness also plays a role in improved mood and can help with depression.

Now, thanks to recent reviews of existing research, we're learning that those of us who were physically fit as children are more likely to be fit -- and healthy -- as adults. Yet at the same time, data shows that adolescents today are up to four times as likely to be overweight as they were in 1960. Fewer than half of children between the ages of 9 and 13 engage in organized physical activity outside of school. One-fourth don't take part in any free-time physical activity at all.

Add in the fact that these days, options for regular physical activity in many schools are quite limited, and it's more important than ever for parents to step up and help their kids get moving.

Which brings us to the excellent point you make regarding the challenge of motivating a child, particularly an adolescent, to exercise regularly. The same facts and statistics that are so compelling to us hold little meaning for someone whose next birthday, let alone the strange and distant land of adulthood, seems an eternity away. Meanwhile, the worlds that await within our screens are notoriously seductive. Getting kids engaged in the bland and boring real world isn't easy. But it's during adolescence that we establish what often turn out to be lifelong behaviors, and this includes physical activity. And it's during this crucial time that levels of physical activity tend to decline, a trend that is apt to be even more pronounced among girls.

Current exercise guidelines for children aim for a minimum of 60 minutes of activity per day, with aerobic exercise the gold standard for cardiovascular health. Walking, hiking, skateboarding, running, biking, dance, gymnastics and many team sports can get the heart pumping. Activities to strengthen muscles as well as controlled impact activities like jumping rope, hopscotch or running that help build bone are important.

One of the keys to getting kids off the couch is to model the desired behavior yourselves. Make physical activity a family priority. Family hikes with a picnic at the destination, a basketball hoop in the driveway, games of tag or catch, jumping rope and family bike rides are great ways to get everyone moving. The trick is to start small, build slowly and make it fun. And know that you're in it for the long haul.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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