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The sobering truth about children’s health

05/23/2018, 4:15pm MDT
By Michael Rand

There are few health statistics as sobering as recent data suggesting children today could face shorter life spans than their parents in large part because of an increase in sedentary lifestyles and childhood obesity.

The problems and the consequences are varied. Thankfully, so are the potential responses and solutions – starting with the simple goal of getting young people to be more active. At least part of the solution can be found in team sports, with youth hockey leading the way.

That’s the message from Dr. Michael Kanters, a professor at North Carolina State who has studied extensively the impact and importance of youth sports.

Multiple problems

Kanters notes a generational shift as one the biggest drivers of the youth health crisis.

“One of the things that I’ve emphasized over the years is that, when I was growing up, there were a lot more opportunities for kids to be participating in unstructured play,” he said. “When I got up on a morning of summer vacation or a weekend, we got out of the house as fast as possible or else dad was going to assign us tasks. We were moving on our own accord. That has changed dramatically. Kids don’t do that.”

While a lot of adults like to blame laziness or the introduction of sedentary pleasures like video games over the years, Kanters redirects the blame and puts it back on adults in many cases.

“One of the most significant factors is fear. As parents, we’re afraid to let our kids head into the neighborhood and create their own active environments,” Kanters said. “I don’t think things are less safe at all. They’re the same as when I was a kid. The problem is that our awareness of things that have happened has changed dramatically.”

As a result, parents have exchanged free play for organized sports. But as Kanters will show later, there are problems with that model.

Another problem is that kids as young as 8 are not getting nearly as much physical activity at school as they used to in previous generations.

“You still hear arguments about eliminating recess in place of more time for academics,” Kanters said. “My wife is an elementary PE teacher and sees kids once every six days for 50 minutes. How do you teach fundamental movement skills in that time?”

Massive consequences

When kids don’t get as much exercise on their own and organized sports can’t fill in all the gaps, you get a health crisis.

The 5 Extra Years video as part of the Designed to Move campaign contains a powerful public service announcement.

“There is a series of kids talking about what would you do with five more years,” Kanters said. “The tagline is that kids are going to live 5 years less than their parents. So the importance and emphasis on getting everyone to move more is finally getting the attention it deserves.”

Inactive kids become sedentary adults, and problems mount.

“This could be the biggest challenge we face in our generation: The effects of a population that is not moving and therefore becoming very large and the costs of that on our healthcare system,” Kanters said. “Economists are looking it and trying to wave the white flag or red flag – and we’re seeing changes.”

Benefits clear

Short of convincing parents to let kids start running free in neighborhoods again – a wonderful idea with psychological barriers – youth sports can play a role in helping ease the crisis.

That said, there are barriers there as well. Not only can there be limits on access to organized sports, but the activities themselves often lead to a lot of standing around or sitting in vehicles while being toted from place to place.

“One of the things we’ve been trying to do is get sport organizations to re-examine how they’re promoting and delivering sports to pay attention to kids and making sure they’re moving most of the time. We’ve done research on practices and it’s alarming how much time kids spend standing around,” Kanters said. “We just finished a study that will be published shortly looking at the amount of time kids spend in vehicles going to and from organized sports.”

That said, doing something – anything – is far better than nothing.

“The research is unequivocal on this that the benefits of youth sports and activity are endless,” Kanters added. “They impact all aspects of health – physical, emotional, spiritual and mental. There’s a plethora of research out there with the benefits.”

Hockey as a leader

The key, then, is to recognize that most activity is organized these days – and to maximize that time.

“I coached hockey for years and you fall into the same trappings. You want to win games,” Kanters said. “Then you remind yourself that you have a group of kids and I’m mapping out plays and breakout drills when I should be devoting 90 percent of the time to skill development and physical activity.”

That’s why USA Hockey’s American Development Model is so important. The emphasis on station-based practices and small-area games keep kids moving and engaged the entire time. Hence the motto: No laps, no lines, no lectures.

It might involve a paradigm shift, but it’s in the right direction.

“To be honest, I think USA Hockey has done a fantastic job and is one of the leading organizations in this,” Kanters said. “They’re paying attention to keeping kids moving and focused on skill development, and it’s industry-leading.”

In the short-term, it’s turning 8-year-olds into better hockey players. In the long-term, it just might help them live into their 80s and beyond.

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