Perhaps you made a resolution to improve your level of physical fitness this new year. Maybe you will walk more, jog further, or even hit the gym. How about your children? With so many time pressures applied on our kids — school, homework, hobbies, organized activities, family events, work — when do they have the time to be physically active unless one of the activities is a sport? Physical education classes in schools these days are more of an afterthought in a student’s schedule as school budgets have been cut and more emphasis has been placed on academic subjects. While there is no lack of activities and hobbies for kids to become absorbed in, many of these are inherently sedentary. It’s great that our kids love to read or draw in their spare time or become immersed in their musical instruments. And it’s nice that kids can just be kids and play video games or watch TV when they have some downtime. As parents, we all have the expectation that our children will work hard in school and do all their homework. And we expect that if they accomplish that job as students, there will be plenty of time for them to partake in their assorted interests and activities. But should we also hold high expectations regarding their level of physical fitness?
I think all teenagers of sound health, body, and mind should be able to walk long distances, hike up steep hills, stand on their feet for more than a few of minutes at a time, and carry a small bit of weight while doing so. They should be able to sprint short distances, run for longer, and walk for miles. It’s okay if they don’t want to do these things; it’s not okay if they can’t do these things because they haven’t built up their fitness capabilities.
Physical fitness in young people — or the lack thereof — has long been a national concern. According to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, President Dwight Eisenhower was worried about it 60 years ago:
After World War II, many Americans worried that US citizens, especially the young, were growing overweight and out of shape. The nation’s economy had changed dramatically, and with it the nature of work and recreation changed. Mechanization had taken many farmers out of the fields and much of the physical labor out of farm work. Fewer factory jobs demanded heavy labor. Television required watching rather than doing. Americans were beginning to confront a new image of themselves and their country, and they did not always like what they saw.
The former General and war hero didn’t like what he saw either:
As a military man, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was probably already sensitive to the issue of physical fitness. Military officers grumbled about the condition of draftees during World War II and the Korean War. But concern about fitness peaked in the mid-1950s with publication of an international study that found American children far less fit than children in other countries. In response, President Eisenhower established the President’s Council on Youth Fitness with Executive Order 10673, issued on July 16, 1956.
President John F. Kennedy embraced his predecessor’s health initiative and later renamed the program the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Many, if not most school districts used the Council’s activity guidelines to create physical education curricula. If you remember doing sit-ups and pushups in elementary school gym class or having to run the “600” in middle school (600 yards is roughly equivalent to a third of a mile), then you were participating in the Presidents’ fitness program.
Recognizing that good nutrition is a vital component of physical fitness and success in sports, President Barack Obama changed the program’s name in 2010 to the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. New expectations — some would say they are higher — have become part of the President’s Challenge, where competencies for several different activities are evaluated and rewarded. These include curl-ups (or partial curl-ups) which are essentially sit-ups, the shuttle run, endurance run/walk, pull-ups (or push-ups or flexed arm hangs), and V-sit reach. (See examples of these activities here.)
Can your teenager run 600 yards? How about a mile? I’m not asking if they want to run these distances. The question is, can they run them? If we want our children to be active and healthy for the majority of their long lives, we should all have the expectation that they should be physically fit now.
If you have concerns about your child’s level of physical fitness, let your pediatrician know. And the earlier, the better.