By Sandy Alexander
WASHINGTON – Bethesda mom Paula Kaplan, a school health volunteer, said she and her husband have always exercised and have encouraged their three sons to be active.
The younger Kaplans, ages 12, 15 and 18, row competitively, play basketball with friends and take martial arts classes, activities that help them defy a trend that finds more American children overweight and out of shape than ever before.
“Given our national television habit, it is no surprise that we are raising the most sedentary and most overweight generation of youngsters in American history,” said Surgeon General David Satcher in a letter promoting National TV-Turnoff Week later this month.
“As they grow, these children will run increased risks of heart disease, diabetes and other health problems unless they turn off the tube and become physically active,” he said.
Statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support Satcher.
The CDC reported in 1994 that nearly 14 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were overweight. The number fell to around 11 percent among 12 to 17 year olds. Two years later, a surgeon general’s report found that nearly half of Americans between 12 and 21 years old were not vigorously active on a regular basis.
Local experts say youth in Maryland are no exception.
“Activity is certainly down” among Maryland children, while more kids are overweight and have high blood pressure, said Carol Friedman, executive director of the Maryland State Advisory Council on Physical Fitness.
Gaithersburg pediatrician Gordon Mella said many of the children and adolescents he sees are spending a lot of time watching television and surfing the Internet, rather than engaging in physical activities. “It’s just sad,” he said.
“The average child in America watches almost three hours of television daily,” said Frank Vespe, executive director of the TV-Turnoff Network, which is organizing the TV-Turnoff Week that starts April 24.
By not spending those hours playing with other children or family members, children are missing out on valuable interactions and life lessons about compromise and sharing, Vespe said.
There are other causes as well, including fewer opportunities to stay active during the day, said Barbara J. Moore, president of Shape Up America!
“Walking to school has become sort of a quaint behavior pattern of the past,” she said, explaining that a lack of sidewalks and concerns about safety have cut out what was once an important source of exercise.
Safety concerns may also keep children indoors after school, particularly in families where both parents work, Moore said, so it is not surprising many young people end up in front of the television with a bag of potato chips.
In Maryland, as in other states, schools seem to have less time for physical fitness as academic pressure increases, Friedman said.
Physical fitness requirements differ among counties, but many schools have cut back on daily physical education classes to make time for academic classes, she said. And in many systems, physical education is an elective for students in high school.
Kaplan noted that Montgomery County high school students are only required to take one year of physical education, and many get it out of the way when they are freshmen.
A state Department of Education study group has spent two years examining ways to make physical education in schools more effective. One goal of the group is to teach children to enjoy physical activity and to think of exercise as a permanent part of their lives, said Betsy Gallun, the leader of the group.
Gallun, who is a health and physical education specialist with the education department, also said the group will recommend that schools teach students how exercise contributes to health. For example, she said, while much of gym class will still be spent on athletic activities, students would also learn the names of bones and muscles and how to conduct their own physical activity assessment.
The group also wants to help students find activities they can enjoy if they do not want to join more traditional team sports, she said, pointing out that even moderate physical activity has benefits for young people who are not star athletes.
Kaplan said her community has a number of athletic resources for kids, including sports leagues, recreation centers and classes. But she worries about families who might not have that access or who have difficulty investing the time and money required for many organized sports.
Kaplan, who has a background in nursing, thinks school time can be used more effectively to help those children who are not already on sports teams.
While schools can encourage children to be more active, experts agree that families play an important role in helping them develop good fitness habits.
“Parents can be excellent role models,” said Friedman.
If adults spend their free time in front of the television, they will not be very successful at getting their children to be active, she said. But, parents who are active themselves and with their children can have a big impact.
When Kaplan thinks her sons are spending too much time in front of the television or video games, she encourages them to get moving.
“A little is fine,” she said, but after a while she tells them to find another activity and “they don’t have a huge choice.”
-30- CNS 04-07-00