Firstly, let me answer the question posed in the title of this post. Where did childhood fitness go? Well, it's gone to the same place their parent's health and fitness went. Straight to the sofa with a bag of chips and a couple beers to watch the big screen TV. Unfortunately our young people are seeing the same degenerative diseases consistent with their parents poor lifestyles, only decades sooner!
In 1966 when I was 10 years old, my best friend Mark Anderson and I rode our bikes from Burlington, Ontario to the small town of Campbellville, which was located 25km north of our homes. A round trip of 50km, which we rode it on our "3-speed" bicycles, on roads with no shoulders, wearing no helmets and neither one of us had cell phones. I don’t know how I ever made it to this age alive, because I was doing this sort of thing all the time when I was a kid...and I've never stopped? The only difference now is I'll ride my bike from Calgary to Austin Texas, or Toronto to Ft Lauderdale Florida, or climb the famous mountain passes in the Tour de France.
Just so you don’t think my parents were completely irresponsible, my father took time to show me how to ride a bike properly and he also taught me to be self sufficient and change a flat. And most importantly, both my parents encouraged me to always be active and participate in sport. I don't think they would have let me do such a ride at the age of 10 if they weren’t confident that I was physically capable of riding 50km over a relatively hilly route….(questioning the better judgment of two 10 year old boys, well that’s a very different subject). But I’m glad they let us go, because after that first ride, we were riding our bikes on those country roads all the time.
I’m sure if you’re of a certain age; you too will have fond memories of childhood activities that would be considered “unnatural acts” in today’s society of over-protective parents that fear the proverbial and non-existent “boogie-man”. As a result, we have a population of unfit kids that sit their fat little behinds in front of the big screen TV or Video Game, eating and drinking junk food and the only thing that gets exercised is their thumbs on the game boy controller. They're just like their parents. The undeniable statistics tell us the sad state of health of our young people, as obesity, Juvenile Diabetes and other chronic diseases never seen before in children have emerged over the past number of decades. In fact, if you have children under the age of 16, they will be the first generation of humans in the history of mankind that on average will live fewer years than their parents. That's an amazing prediction given all the medical procedures designed to extend life.
So what made me think about writing on this subject? Well for starters, I want to say something every time I see a fat kid sucking back a Big Gulp from 7-11 that their parents just purchased. However, this time, the annual report card on physical activity was released by the Active Healthy Kids Canada and reported in the Globe and Mail on April 26th and the information prompted me to write this post. Here are a few of this year’s grades:
- (F) for overall physical activity: Only 9 per cent of boys and 4 per cent of girls meet guideline recommendations of 60 minutes daily of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity;
- (F) for active play: Only one in eight children engage in play every day after school;
- (F) for screen-related behavior: Canadian kids spend, on average six hours daily in front of TV, computer and game screens;
- (D) for active transportation: One in four children get to and from school under their own steam, such as walking or biking;
- (C-) for physical education: One in four children get no gym classes; half get one to two gym periods a week and; one in four gets three to four periods;
- (C) for organized sport: 75 per cent of parents say their children participate in organized sport in the past year;
- (A) for proximity and availability: 95 per cent of parents polled say that parks and outdoor spaces are available locally.
What's disturbing is that these poor grades are a result of poor lifestyle choices that our children today are exposed to by their parents. They feature a lifestyle that lacks daily exercise (or physical play) and healthy dietary choices. Given that the majority of Canadians are now either overweight or obese why should we be surprised? So what is the difference in parenting from yester-year that would yield such disturbing results? Here are just a few examples of how exercise, fitness and health were built into every kid’s lifestyle when I was young and no one thought of it as exercise....we were just playing around.
Transportation to and from School:
When I was a Kid: Grade school kids used to walk, or rode their bikes to schools every day. And the weather didn't make any difference. We walked or rode in the rain, snow or shine. And we went home at noon to eat a healthy lunch prepared by our mothers. You were the exception if you took a lunch bag to school and it wasn’t until we went to High School that we took a lunch.
Today:I live down the street from two elementary schools and every morning the street is filled with Dad's and mostly Mom's in their SUVs and Minivans driving their kids a few blocks to school and picking them up after classes. I applaud the few Moms walking their kids to school and give a standing ovation to the kids that go home at lunch for a home-made, healthy lunch.
When I was a Kid: After school, my buddies and I would meet in the street to play street hockey until my mother called me in for dinner that was prepared (not bought at some fast food joint) and in the summer, we would be playing basketball, touch football or scrub (a form of pick-up baseball) in the street. The only time my mother would allow me in the house after school, was if I were sick, and that didn’t happen that often
Today: I work from my home office so I get to observe the activity in the neighborhood all day. The next time you drive home after work, take a look at the streets in your neighborhood....you will probably notice what I notice.....they’re empty and void of children playing. When kids go home after school, as the report above describes, children just plop themselves in from of some screen (TV or Video Game). I can only speculate why parents allow their children to live this kind of sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle. It’s probably because they don't make health a personal priority in their own life, or they’ve bought into the media hype and believe the "boogie-man" is going to do something bad to their children, so they don't allow them out of their sight to play in the neighborhood. Or they're just afraid they might hurt themselves. News flash....it's ok to let your kids fall down and skin a knee or scrape an elbow.
When I was a Kid: We had no choice when it came to gym class. Everyone had to take gym, period, no exceptions. My grade 7 gym teacher, Mr. Gapes was an early pioneer in cardiovascular fitness in the school. He would make us run every day for at least 30 minutes straight. With the exception of the odd “mama’s boy” that whined that he was too tough, we did as we were told and did the workout.....everyday single day! I think can thank Mr. Gapes for the cardiovascular fitness I enjoy today.
Today: If a gym teacher today tried to do what Mr. Gapes did to us when I was a kid, I think he would be up on “child abuse” charges by over protective parents, or a system that designs fitness programs for the lowest common denominator, instead of pushing for individual achievement. In fact, as the report shows, kids don’t even have to take gym class and most don't get enough that do. Fitness is as important as math, English and geography and should be a mandatory daily subject in all school systems in North America from grades 1 to 12. If your child's school doesn't have a mandatory gym class, speak up and lobby your school. It's your children's future health that's at stake.
Access to Facilities
When I was a Kid: We didn’t have access to many facilities outside of school, unless you consider the street a facility, because we played hockey, football, baseball, soccer in the street and we had a basketball hoop nailed to the roof of our garage in the driveway and played hoops for hours. Access to a "facility" never really impacted our ability to be active.
Today: Regardless of your opinion of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I heard him speak at a bike trade show in 1990 when he was the Chairman for the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sport in America and he said something that stuck with me all these years. Arnold told the audience to never accept a school that shuts down their physical education program due to a lack of funding for facilities or equipment. Arnold said activities like running are free, sit-ups are free, push-ups are free, and jumping-jacks are free. So true! You require no facilities or special equipment to be fit. As the report indicates, facilities are not our problem; in fact we have all that we need. Our neighborhood has a large play field just down the street and with the exception of organized spring soccer programs, it’s almost always empty. In fact, when I was a kid, we had to negotiate with the other kids, what part of the field was ours to play football or baseball on.
The Root Cause
Don't blame the system, the politicians, the schools and most of all; don't blame the kids for their poor fitness and health. The problem lies on the shoulders of their parents. It's their responsibility to ensure the health and fitness of their children from the moment they decide to have children. I'm confused why parents will spring to action when their child is sick, but do nothing as they watch their kids sit for hours in front of a TV or video game eating junk food that causes them to get sick in the first place. If a father sits on his butt in front of the big screen TV with a couple of beers and a bag of chips to watch the game, instead of actually playing the game, is it any wonder their children won’t be active themselves?
When I was growing up, many of my buddy’s fathers would join us in a game of street hockey, or play some basketball or football with us. It seemed there was always someones dad joining the game. My Father did. In fact, he was just one of the kids. Why have so many families lost this important parent child engagement of yester year?
Here are a few ideas to get your children active:
- All you stay-at-home Moms and Dads, have your children walk to school (regardless of their age) and if you wish, join them. It will be good exercise for you both, while providing some good one-on-one time with your child as they tell you about their day.
- Encourage your kids to play outside after school. There’s never a shortage of games to play. Whatever happened to good old street hockey, shooting some hoops in the driveway, or young girls jumping rope (ok, I'm dating myself)? Homework is for after a healthy family dinner that doesn’t come in a bag from some fast food joint. Finally, TV and video games should be the lowest priority activity and should only be squeezed in if there's time left at the end of the day.
- A maximum of one hour of “mindless” screen time per day. I understand many homework assignments are now done on computers, so "mindless" screen time refers to TV and Video games. I've worked in the IT industry most of my life and even though we had multiple computers in our home, my daughter never played video games as I child and now at the age of 25, she’s a healthy and successful business women living in London England. Limited access to TV and no access to video games certainly didn't slow her down. In fact, she's running a 1/2 marathon on May 8th, just 2 days before she travels to Tanzania to volunteer at a children's orphanage for a month, before returning to London to continue her career passion in Brand Marketing.
- No screen time during the day on weekends. Encourage physical activities that involve the whole family.
- And finally, lobby your school if they have no MANDATORY Physical Education program, and don’t quit until they get one!
I would be naïve to assume that life today is the same as it was 4 decades ago when I was a kid, but one thing is universally true today as it was years ago. When parents take an active role in their child’s development (physical and mental) and lead by example by being active themselves and eating a healthy diet, the outcomes are outstanding.
Take a look at my good friend Bob Willett and his son Nolan to see what happens when a parent is truly engaged with their children and encourage them to live an active and healthy lifestyle. Amazing!
Enjoy the Ride …. Rob