Student Well-Being

Report Card Gives U.S. Youths a D- for Overall Physical Activity

By Bryan Toporek — May 06, 2014 3 min read
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U.S. children and youths between the ages of 6 and 15 received a grade of D-minus for their overall physical-activity levels in the first-ever United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, which the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance and the American College of Sports Medicine released at a congressional fitness caucus on April 29.

The report card drew upon multiple nationally representative surveys to give grades for 10 indicators related to physical activity among children and youth: overall physical activity, sedentary behaviors, active transportation, organized sport participation, active play, health-related fitness, family and peers, school, community and the built environment, and government strategies and investments. Only one of the 10 indicators received a grade above a C-minus.

According to the 2003-04 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which the authors used for the overall physical activity grade, roughly one-quarter of children and youth between 6 and 15 years old engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at least five days a week. However, there’s reason to believe those numbers have increased over the past decade.

Per the 2012 NHANES—which I covered in depth earlier this year—just 24.8 percent of U.S. children between the ages of 12 and 15 reported obtaining 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on a daily basis, the minimum threshold recommended by the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Just over 60 percent of boys in that age range and just under 50 percent of girls reported engaging in moderate-to-vigorous activity for at least five days a week.

Youths didn’t receive a much higher mark when it came to sedentary behaviors. Only 53.5 percent of youths between the ages of 6 and 11 engaged in two hours or less of screen time per day, according to the 2009-10 NHANES. Overall, children between the ages of 6 and 19 spent just over seven hours a day being sedentary, which resulted in a flat D in this category.

Only one of the 10 categories—active transportation—earned an F. According to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, only 12.7 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 14 usually either walked or biked to school, which represents a 35 percentage-point decrease from 40 years prior.

Below is a summary of how U.S. youths fared on all 10 indicators. For four of the 10, the report-card authors believed there to be insufficient nationally representative data available to assign a grade.

“This report illustrates the immediate need for a comprehensive action plan to promote physical fitness for our young people,” said Rep. Aaron Kind (R-Ill.), a co-chair of the fitness caucus, in a statement. “It’s hard to develop a healthy mind without a healthy body, and encouraging healthy habits and routines early in life is something we all can do to help our kids succeed in school and their communities.”

Dr. William Dexter, the president of the American College of Sports Medicine, suggested that government officials and physicians have critical roles to play when it comes to increasing physical activity among youths and decreasing childhood obesity. Government officials, he said, must be active in terms of surveillance, research, and other policies, while physicians should be encouraging youths to engage in additional physical activity.

Lest you get too depressed about the grades in this initial report card, remember: things were far worse a decade ago. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing the obesity rate for U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 5 to have plunged 43 percent from 2003-04 to 2011-12. The CDC found no significant decline in obesity rates for children between the ages of 2 and 19, though some locales, including Philadelphia, New York City, and Massachusetts, have reported decreasing childhood-obesity rates over recent years.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.