Although many preadolescents enjoy community sports programs, such as age-group soccer, participation drops off sharply as the programs become more competitive and selective. Consider that of the hundreds of elementary school children playing soccer on Saturday mornings, only a couple dozen will make the high school team a few years later.
In spite of all these obstacles, youth in this country have previously had the privilege of taking physical education classes in our public schools. Unfortunately, like many other states, Massachusetts recently lost its mandate for school physical education. Some communities have maintained high-quality physical education programs and others have developed school-based fitness centers similar to health clubs, but these are certainly the exceptions rather than the rule. Sad to say, the majority of school systems have simply let physical education slide with too few teachers, too few program options, and too few of the students who desperately need exercise activities.
Let me sum up the problem as briefly as possible. Due largely to lifestyle factors that favor fast foods and sedentary pursuits rather that nutritious meals and physical activity, many young people are overfat and underfit. Worse yet, they typically do not know how to change their situation in a positive and productive manner. They really need our help. Without responsible leadership in the essential elements of health and fitness, many youth will become discouraged and never try to improve their physical condition.
Perhaps the best thing we can do is work to reinstate quality physical education programs back in the public schools. Better yet, in addition to activity classes in the gymnasium and pool, we should support physical fitness centers in our schools. With well-equipped fitness centers all young people can perform productive exercise that helps them to look better, feel better and function better, as well as establish a lifestyle that should enhance their health as youth and adults.
We should also encourage young people to participate in a variety of physically active pursuits such as weight training, cycling, hiking, rock climbing, skating, canoeing, skiing, etc. There are many non-competitive options for those who are not sports minded, and, of course, there are all kinds of competitive activities for those with athletic interests and abilities. For example, a boy or girl doesn't have to make the high school golf team to enjoy playing golf with family or friends.
Finally, we should lead our children by example, taking a little time each day to exercise and making healthy eating selections when we snack. Children who observe their parents lifting weights typically want to join them, and children who see their parents snacking on fruit are less likely to choose candy and chips for themselves.
Our kids definitely need help in the areas of exercise, nutrition and fitness. In addition to providing appropriate facilities, equipment, programs and professional leadership, the role model that we present as adults can be a major motivation factor.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South
Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of books including the new releases Strength Training Past 50 and Strength and Power for Young Athletes.
©2001 Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D. all rights reserved