Children Worldwide Aren’t Getting Enough Exercise — Here’s What We Can Do About It
By Matt Berger
It's not just kids in the United States.
Children worldwide aren't getting enough physical activity.
That's the main conclusion of a new World Health Organization (WHO) study released Wednesday.
The researchers report that slightly more than 80 percent of adolescents ages 11 to 17 were insufficiently physically active in 2016.
WHO says it's the first global estimates of adolescents' physical activity levels, a major factor in obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.
How rich the country was didn't matter much, although nations in the Asia-Pacific region had the highest rates of insufficient physical activity, at 89 percent.
What did matter was gender.
On average, girls got less physical activity than boys. That includes the U.S., where the discrepancy was more than 15 percentage points.
The percentage of boys getting enough physical activity actually increased slightly between 2001 and 2016, while the percentage of girls stayed the same.
A Global Problem
Overall, experts say, the study paints a picture of a global "pandemic" of insufficiency that will require a multipronged and perhaps even cross-border approach to rein in.
"In relation to the high levels of inactivity in so many countries, the decreases (in some countries) are still relatively small and levels are still high in most countries," Regina Guthold, Ph.D., a scientist with WHO's noncommunicable diseases department and the study's lead author, told Healthline. "A lot of work remains to be done."
Guthold says those small decreases could be due to actions such as school programs, increased participation in sports, creating new places for activities, and increased awareness of the importance of physical activity through education and media campaigns.
But, she said, "These actions seem to only have reached boys, not girls."
A Gender Problem
In the United States, the overall percent of adolescents getting insufficient physical activity dropped from about 76 percent to 72 percent.
But that was largely driven by improvements in boys. Girls remained around 80 percent.
Guthold points to potential flaws in certain efforts to increase physical activity levels.
Organized sports or after-school programs may primarily reach boys. Girls may not feel as safe as boys in places such as public parks.
"To increase activity levels in girls, and close the gender gap, it will be very important to develop strategies that specifically address girls' physical activity behavior," she said.
Some Cautionary Words
There are two important aspects to be noted in the study, experts say.
One, the data is self-reported, notes Dr. Scott Kahan, MPH, director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness in Washington, DC.
"This is an important study in that it gives us additional data across dozens of countries to help inform the long-term planning and goal of addressing inadequate physical activity," Kahan told Healthline. "At the same time, we have to take the data with a grain of salt."
He says that in countries like the U.S., the increased messaging about the importance of physical activity may be leading to an unintended complication.
"It begs the question, do these results suggest adolescents are moving more, or that they recognize that it's important to move more and therefore they say they're moving more?" Kahan said. "This is a common challenge with self-reported survey data."
The other issue is that the 2001 numbers were already so high: 85 percent for girls globally and 80 percent for boys.
"When you have 80 percent of kids who are inactive, it gets kind of hard to have much more than that," said Dr. Blaise Nemeth, a pediatric orthopedist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health who has served on the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.
Making Exercise More Fun
On the gender discrepancy, Nemeth told Healthline that in addition to gender norms and rules keeping girls from physical activity in some countries and families, it "suggests that girls don't have the same opportunities as boys to be physically active when they're younger."
He also connects that idea to recent revelations about Nike's athlete training programs.
Part of those stories is that current training — beyond just at Nike — is often based on the physiology of male bodies.
That ties in to some possible solutions.
"The number one factor for kids participating in sports is that what they're doing is fun," Nemeth said. "Physical activity has to be something we're enjoying."
Beyond making sure it's fun, "to make change on this is going to require a societal shift in how we view physical activity — from something to lose weight to something for overall good health," he said.
Starting at the Top — and Bottom
Kahan says that tackling insufficient physical activity requires an approach similar to that used against problems such as tobacco use: both bottom-up and top-down.
"This is the only way we've made progress on a host of other pandemics," he said.
Bottom-up would include building knowledge among parents, teachers, and others so they can inform and encourage children to be healthy.
Top-down would be decreasing barriers to physical activity. That could include things such as building more gym time into school life and addressing the environment, so cities are more walkable and have more places and opportunities for physical activity.
Guthold notes that the lack of those two possible solutions in some countries may be contributing to their exceptionally low physical activity levels.
In South Korea, for example, 97 percent of girls and 91 percent of boys didn't get enough physical activity.
Guthold speculates that in such countries, those rates could be due to a strong focus on academic achievement at school at the expense of promoting physical activity.
She also points to the built-in environment in countries like South Korea with high urban density.
"Increased traffic and environments that are not safe for walking or cycling might be another explanation, particularly in big and growing cities," Guthold said.
To really know how active kids are and how the factors around them affect that, we'd need more and better data, though.
That's expensive, particularly in developing countries, but it can be done with tools like accelerometers and pedometers, Kahan says.
Then, instead of self-reported data, we'd have better information "so we know where we stand and what trends are and how much resources are needed."
"This pandemic of inadequate physical activity is an aspect of modern life," he said.
Technology makes physical activity less necessary, either for work or fun, and factors such as sprawl only add to that, Kahan says.
"It all sets the stage for physical activity, obesity, and diabetes pandemics," he said.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.