Simple Strategies to Increase Globally Reduced Physical Activity

Although obesity was a major public health concern prior to the pandemic, the lockdowns and restrictions in movement caused reductions in physical activity of up to 90 minutes a day among children and adolescents. In a recent study powered by smartphone data from people in 46 countries, the most walkable cities allow all citizens to engage in physical activity. The study also found that independent of a person’s wealth, the lived environment influences activity levels.

Key takeaways:
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    Physical activity appears to be protective against serious Covid-19.
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    One recent systematic review of sports participation and chronic conditions in childhood provided reassurance that physical activity reduces some of the adverse health effects associated with a chronic medical condition.
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    The CDC recommends 60 minutes per day of physical activity for children, and 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise for adults.

Today’s built environment may not prompt us to walk as much as we should. Few in the US exceed 5000 steps a day, but simple strategies can make an activity a part of everyday life for both children and adults. Sports are a natural go-to solution for boosting fitness, but not everyone is comfortable with the hyper-competitive tendencies of youth sports culture today. Nature play and active commuting are two other ways to infuse movement throughout the day while healing an overstimulated nervous system.

Global variation in steps per day as measured by smartphone data.

Large Scale Physical Activity Data Reveal Worldwide Activity Inequality by PubMed
Physical Activity Data Worldwide by PubMed

Youth sports can be safe even for kids with a chronic medical condition

As we enter the cold, flu and Covid-19 season once again, parents may have concerns about signing children up for sports within the confines of an enclosed space. Although the current omicron sub-variants are more transmissible, we now have vaccines and high population-based immunity providing excellent protection for children and adults, and medications that can help treat Covid-19. Physical activity also appears to be protective against serious Covid-19. Thus, it is vitally important for families to resume activities, not just for reducing Covid risks, but for everyone’s overall health and mental wellbeing as well.

Youth sports are wonderful for skill-building, but for children with a chronic health condition, parents may have concerns about the safety of participating. Misperceptions exist about children with diabetes, asthma or epilepsy participating in sports given the potential risks of hypoglycemia or an asthma exacerbation. One recent systematic review of sports participation and chronic conditions in childhood provided reassurance that—contrary to being a detriment to health—physical activity reduces some of the adverse health effects associated with a chronic medical condition. In fact, insulin sensitivity, bone mineral density, cardiovascular fitness and asthma-free days were all found to improve among children who participated in sports.

Natural play spaces

Some children will not be terribly interested in sports, nor want to play in a space that is designed solely for fitness, such as a course with pull-up bars and incline sit-up benches. Natural play spaces promote free movement and interaction, encourage activity and an appreciation of the natural world. After more than two years of stress, isolation, and screens, nature can play a vital role in healing. Shawna Campbell, LCSW, reminds us that because our nervous system was primed for coexisting in nature, “the natural world soothes us in a unique and powerful way.”

There are many ways for parents to connect their children with nature. As director of Frog Creek Adventure School, a Los Angeles-based outdoor education non-profit dedicated to fostering a deep and lasting connection with nature, Ms. Campbell suggests that parents begin routines of taking children into nature, whether that is a tree-filled park, a shoreline, or off on a path. “Go as a family or invite friends. Seek out organizations that connect children to nature or start a nature club of your own.”

Children and teens may protest at first to the change of environment. “Don’t give up,” Ms. Campbell says. “Adults can sit through emotions by modeling curiosity in the surroundings. Eventually everyone settles into their own routine and interests. Whether they choose sitting quietly by a creek, climbing a tree, running down a path, digging in the dirt, imaginative play in a hideout, capture the flag, or trying to catch a frog, you can trust that the whole child is growing in these moments.” Spontaneous disputes also provide a chance to flex conflict resolution skills and self confidence. While all these benefits are intuitive to parents and educators, the literature needs some time to catch up with a universal definition of nature-based play and its impact on physical and cognitive outcomes.

Active commuting to school

Another recent study conducted in four New Jersey cities found that children who walk, ride bikes or even skateboard to school at early ages are 7 times more likely to continue making human-powered transport (“active commuting” in the study) a part of daily life several years down the road. Those in the study who had not been walking or riding to school rarely started active commuting. As might be expected, high schoolers tend to live further away from school and their likelihood of active commuting decreased as distance from school increased.

The AAP suggests children are not likely to be ready to walk to school alone until about age 10, based on injury statistics and developmental readiness. The New Jersey study authors provide a few suggestions for parents, such as forming a “human school bus” by gathering groups of children to walk together. This is especially helpful in areas where parents may not feel comfortable with their child walking alone to school. Teens can ride a bike, especially if they do not yet have a driver’s license.

How can parents build more movement into everyday life?

The CDC recommends 60 minutes per day of physical activity for children, and 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise for adults. Children also need muscle-building activities three times a week and plenty of running and jumping for bone strength. Natural play spaces and playgrounds can help promote climbing, jumping and running if your child is not interested in sports. But what about adults who are already overworked and exhausted with little time left to hit the gym? With a bit of creativity, we can recapture lost moments for activity or find new inspiration by adventuring with a friend.

  • Podcasts are great company, and can make it more likely that you look forward to getting active vs. dreading it.
  • Learn the public transport system in your city and walk to the bus or train station. If you already do this, walk to a more distant stop before hopping on.
  • Do a one-way run or walk with a friend to a new destination and ride the train or bus back home.
  • Walk from store to store in a large shopping center instead of re-parking the car.
  • Walk to the grocery store while your child is at practice or a club (of course this means careful timing with cold items, but perhaps you can grab essentials like toilet paper and stash them in the trunk?).
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator at work or in hotels when traveling for business.
  • Pack dumbbells and a yoga mat in your trunk for parking lot workouts during your child’s practice. You might feel awkward for a bit but eventually others may join or at least enjoy snapping fun photos of you in unusual places!
  • Follow a fitness app or YouTube channel for yoga, high intensity interval training (HIIT) and other quick-burst workouts when you have 15 minutes to burn.
  • If you have a pet, take over the dog-walking duty and enjoy counting steps for both of you.

It is certainly not easy to change habits, but it is possible to get more active without making it feel like a chore. You play an important role in modeling health for your children, so your efforts to incorporate more steps into everyday life have immeasurable value.


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