Recent advances in technology have brought changes, both positive and negative. This is particularly true of physical activity in young people 5-17 years old. At the risk of sounding like my mother, I must acknowledge “things were different back in the day”. I’d come home from school and would rush to do my homework so I could watch an hour of TV before rushing out to knock for my friends, with whom I’d play and run around until it was time to bathe and head to bed. Most times we pushed curfew to the last possible minute, which meant we had to sprint home. Weekends were spent running, cycling and playing sports. We never got lifts or rode the bus. We depended on shanks’ pony (our God-given legs) to get around. Today’s young people in the digital age have it easier (sounding again like Mom) but easier is not always better, especially when it gets down to staying fit and healthy.
Sedentary behaviours can have detrimental effect on a child’s health and development that can lead to bad habits that may manifest later in life, affecting metabolism, neuromuscular activity, posture, socio-emotional experiences, cognitive experiences and sleep patterns. Research in adolescent behaviour has linked time watching TV to substance abuse, reduced self-worth and self-concept, reduced bone health—all of which increase risks associated with metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease, poor pro-social behaviour, increased aggression, reduced academic achievement, depression and reduced quality of life.
Being active, on the other hand, has many positive benefits on physical and social development. It helps to build strong bones and muscles, improves movement, balance and co-ordination, plays a role in brain development and learning as well as having a positive role in nurturing social skills and the concept of taking turns and working in teams. It also has obvious benefits like weight control and mood enhancement. The World Health Organization is committed to encouraging physical activity in both young people and adults and recommends the following activity guidelines.
Babies 0-1: This may seem like an early age to encourage physical activity but it is a very important period during development and growth. Babies should spend no more than an hour sitting in a stroller or a high chair and should definitely not be sat in front of the TV. In fact, it is important that babies spend time on the floor interacting with their environment with at least 30 minutes on their tummies.
Toddlers 1 -2: This is the age when toddlers have usually found their feet and are happy to stand up and use the furniture or other stable (and sometimes unstable) objects to move around. Of course, once on their feet, they spend a lot of time falling over. It can be a hard time for parents with no eyes in the back of their heads. The temptation, for your child’s safety and your sanity, is to sit your child in front of the TV to keep them amused. But sitting in one place for too long can have consequences. Although it may be difficult to keep two-year-olds away from the TV, screen-time should be no longer than an hour, and preferably not an option at all. Instead, toddlers should be encouraged to explore and engage in energetic play for at least three hours throughout the day.
Pre-school children 3-4: By now physical activity should be part of everyday life and it is recommended that three hours throughout the day should be spent playing, with at least an hour of that in energetic play. Parks are ideal for this but when not available there is always the beach. The opportunity to run up and down the sands, build sandcastles and swim are among the things that make living in the Caribbean special. In between vigorous activity, quiet wind-down time is recommended. Playing with blocks and bricks, or reading, beats sitting for hours in front of the TV, any day.
Children aged 5-17: This group spends a lot of time sitting on classroom chairs and it is important to include physical activity in their routine, whether that means running around, playing with friends or participating in sport. It can be a time of extreme pressure to learn and to fit in, with peer pressure being a large influence in their daily lives.
Exercise is not only good for keeping healthy, it can improve self-esteem, self-image and mood. It is also a good way to develop social skills and the skills necessary to excel at work and play. After-school playing is not as common these days as in the past and, unless your child participates in an after-school sport, there is a large temptation to head for the TV or video games.
Sedentary pastimes are becoming increasingly popular but should not be done for more than two hours a day. Playing video games or spending long hours on a computer, phone or tablet are not only anti-social and lacking in health benefits but using these devices just before bed can also have a negative effect on sleep as they emit a blue light which suppresses the release of melatonin, the chemical responsible for inducing sleep.
So, encourage your child to get up and run around. In the final part of our series next week we will look at physical activity in adults because running around is not just for the youths.