Student Well-Being

Three-Fourths of U.S. Children Aren’t Meeting Physical-Activity Guidelines

By Bryan Toporek — November 18, 2016 3 min read
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Three-fourths of children across the United States aren’t meeting the recommended amount of physical activity per week, according to a report card released Wednesday from the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance.

The World Health Organization and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggest children participate in 60 minutes of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, such as running or swimming, along with vigorous-intensity activity at least three days per week.

Based on data from the 2005-06 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey—the latest national report with up-to-date physical-activity data using accelerometers—just over one-fifth of youths between the ages of 6 and 19 participated in 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at least five days per week. Overall, more boys (26.0 percent) met the recommendations than girls (16.9 percent), but as children grow older, there’s a significant decline in physical activity across genders.

Among children between the ages of 6 and 11, 48.6 percent of boys met the recommendations and 36.1 percent of girls did, according to the 2005-06 data. Those numbers plunged sharply for boys (11.7 percent) and girls (3.0 percent) between the ages of 12 and 15, and they dropped even further for boys (7.3 percent) and girls (2.8 percent) between the ages of 16 and 19.

Self-reported data from the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System painted a far more optimistic picture about physical activity among high schoolers, as 57.8 percent of boys and 39.1 percent of girls reported participating in at least 60 minutes of physical activity on five or more days in a given week. However, because those figures are self-reported rather than based off a device such as an accelerometer, the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance authors note there’s reason to be skeptical about their accuracy.

Beyond physical activity, the report card also assessed other measures of children’s health, including how much screen time they have per day. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest children shouldn’t be in front of screens for more than two hours daily, but much like with physical activity, the percentage of children meeting those recommendations decreases with age. Nearly half of children between the ages of 2 and 5 do have fewer than two hours per day of screen time, but among those between the ages of 12 and 19, only 30.8 percent meet that recommendation.

The report card also gave below-average grades to active transportation, as only 12.7 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 14 usually walk or bike to school; health-related fitness, as fewer than half of children between the ages of 12 and 15 meet cardiorespiratory fitness standards; and “school,” as roughly half of high schoolers attend at least one physical education class per week.

“The results of this new Report Card demonstrate that we have much to do to ensure that our children become active, fit and healthy adults,” said Russell Pate, chairman of the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance Board of Directors, in a statement. “The National Physical Activity Plan lays out a strategy for increasing the physical activity level of all segments of our population, children and youth included. We call on parents, school personnel and community leaders to review the Plan and make the changes that will enable many more of our young people to meet national physical activity guidelines.”

The report authors recommend schools, preschools and child-care centers work to increase physical-activity opportunities among their students. They also call for further studies into “key research gaps,” and note that focus on youths’ environment—namely, building infrastructure to promote physical activity—"are promising, but need additional works.”

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