Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.
Any mom knows that kids need to occasionally burn off excess energy and teachers know that, too. After P.E. class, students are less likely to be disruptive and are able to concentrate better. One reason is that exercise tends to keep blood sugar in the normal range and even slight elevations have a negative effect on the ability of children to concentrate.
The long-term benefits of regular exercise go much deeper. Children who engage in regular physical activity for several hours a week are less likely to be overweight, have a better self-image, lower their risk of high blood pressure and heart disease and decrease the risk of osteoporosis in later life. Young person who are physically fit, in contrast to their less active peers, are not as likely to use tobacco or alcohol.
In the quest to get children to score higher on standardized tests, school administrators have been sacrificing P.E. classes. This is a short-sighted strategy. Although physical education classes do cut into the available time for academic subjects, sacrificing an hour a day not only does not lower academic performance but actually enhances it.
To be sure, exercise is not the only factor in preventing obesity but its opposite, inactivity while watching TV or playing video games, certainly does contribute to it. There is a direct correlation between hours spent in TV watching and overweight in children. Habit is another consideration. Young persons who engage in a high level of physical activity tend to retain that behavior in adult life. The opposite is also true; childhood couch potatoes grow up to become inactive, overweight and chronically ill adults.
Behavioral scientists have recently become aware of the concept of executive function, the ability to set goals, develop self-control and to develop memory and attention skills. This ability starts to develop in childhood and studies of children at various grade levels confirm that physical activity, especially aerobic exercise, improves creative thinking and other elements of executive function.
Adolescent depression is a serious and growing problem. Exercise can make a difference and not only in childhood. A study of more than 2,000 adults showed that depression was more likely among those who were less physically active when they were children.
American kids are among the least fit on the planet. We're not doing them any favors by not developing a strategy to get them moving.
Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.