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Published December 10, 2013, 09:03 PM

Generation fluffy? Parents, teachers, experts agree today's kids far less fit

FARGO - Ask Heather Arntson and she’ll tell you: Video games are threatening to turn today’s kids into Generation Fluffy. Arntson, who heads Moorhead High School’s physical education department, says lots of kids have speedy fingers and thumbs of steel from video games but can’t do 10 decent pushups or pullups.

By: Helmut Schmidt, INFORUM

FARGO - Ask Heather Arntson and she’ll tell you: Video games are threatening to turn today’s kids into Generation Fluffy.

Arntson, who heads Moorhead High School’s physical education department, says lots of kids have speedy fingers and thumbs of steel from video games but can’t do 10 decent pushups or pullups.

They’re not in the same shape as kids 10 years or 20 years ago, Arntson said.

“Most females can’t do a pullup,” said Arntson, who’s taught in Moorhead for 19 years. “To ask a kid to do pushups and do it the right way, I probably would say 60 percent could do it. It’s not very many.”

Arntson’s not alone in worrying about the fitness of the current crop of kids. Local health experts agree sedentary lifestyles and fast-food diets have yielded children not as physically fit as their parents or grandparents were as kids.

“The entertainment, a generation or two ago, used to be that you had to go out and play baseball to have fun,” said Joe Deutsch, an associate professor of physical education teacher education at North Dakota State University.

“Lifestyles are changing. ... People are eating more fast food than they used to. Those meals are high in sodium and high in calories,” Deutsch said.

Rory Beil, director of the Cass Clay Healthy People Initiative, said there’s been a threefold increase in the percentage of children above a healthy weight.

Physical activity has been phased out in small but important ways.

A national study in 1970 showed about two-thirds of kids living within a mile of school walked to school, Beil said. By 2009, that number had flipped, with two-thirds of children never walking or biking to school, he said. They probably lost an average of 1,750 minutes of physical activity a year, he said.

Plus, schools did a drastic turnaround in their emphasis on physical education during the age of No Child Left Behind.

In the early 1980s, phy ed was the norm in schools, Beil said. But a heavy emphasis on academics has sucked time to run and play.

Arntson said at Moorhead High, students are required to take only two semesters of physical education. She said they may see a student in his or her freshman year and then not again until junior year.

Those worries are in line with an international study of running fitness that found today’s 9- to 17-year-olds would be left in their parents’ dust on a track.

The analysis, led by Grand Tomkinson of the University of South Australia’s School of Health Sciences, was presented to a recent American Heart Association conference. It used data from 50 studies on running fitness between 1964 and 2010, and involved more than 25 million children ages 9 to 17 in 28 countries.

Among its findings:

E Cardiovascular health has declined worldwide since 1975.

E In a mile run, today’s kids are about 90 seconds slower than their peers from 30 years ago.

E Today’s kids are 15 percent less fit than their parents from a cardiovascular standpoint.

Tomkinson estimates “about 30 percent to 60 percent of the declines in endurance running performance can be explained by increases in fat mass.”

Meanwhile, area parents and grandparents say they’re trying to inculcate the idea that play is good.

It’s hard to argue when you see a gaggle of children bounding among the bridges, rowboats and other playground toys at the Recess West playroom in the West Acres mall.

Garrett Lee and his wife, Priscilla, watched as their sons Gavin, 4, and Carson, 2, clambered around the room on a chilly Sunday.

Gavin is in hockey and played T-ball last summer. Carson has already had a taste of gymnastics, and soccer may be up next, Priscilla said.

“I just look at our kids, and they’re so busy. Go-go,” Priscilla said. “As they grow, we want them to stay active.”

But others say they have noticed the drop-off in activity around them.

“I don’t think they’re as active,” Sam Hill said of today’s children, as she and Joe Hanson watched their 1-year-old son, Alex, play.

“I have a niece and a nephew and they’re into video games,” Hill said. “I played outside, and we had bikes. We lived a block away from the swimming pool, and we were a block away from the skating rink.”

“Kids are mostly inside” playing video games and iPads, Hanson agreed. He, on the other hand, grew up with “a lot of outdoor camping.”

Ruth Banck of New York Mills, Minn., said her grandchildren are all athletic. But she remembers working hard just in day-to-day living.

“When we were growing up, we lived on a farm. We milked cows” and did other chores, she said. “We made everything from scratch” and collected eggs from their chickens.

“Do you know how many times I got pecked? I don’t remember ever going out to eat,” Banck said.

To play with friends, “we’d ride bikes to the neighbors. I don’t know how many sections away,” Banck said.

Deutsch said he’s encouraged by the health programs introduced into Fargo and West Fargo public schools. He also notes that college students are now more fitness-minded – a good sign that younger students are taking to heart lessons in healthier lifestyles.

“Your objective is to get every student to believe they should be physically active for a lifetime,” Deutsch said.

Arntson adds that there is a nearly sure-fire way for parents to make sure kids get active: Get off the couch themselves.

“I think it starts in the home. Make fitness an important part of family life. Be role models,” Arntson said. “Lift weights. Go for a walk with the dog. Golf with the child. Play catch with the child.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

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