Few people, if any, would debate the importance of being active. We know that physical activity and health are strongly related, and that being less active can lead to a whole host of health problems. Even more important than keeping ourselves active is keeping children active. Of course we know that keeping children active is important, but many people often do not realise the great extent to which it is more important than keeping adults active. There is a large number of reasons that encouraging children to engage in physical activity is crucial to their lifelong health, which we will outline below.
It may seem like an obvious statement that children who are more physically active are less likely to be overweight or obese. But despite this apparently obvious fact, children are becoming less active and more overweight. We recently spoke about a study that found that one third of Irish children today have never climbed a tree, compared to 74% of parents who say they climbed a tree often or all the time as children. These sort of generational discrepancies are part of the driving force behind the fact that a quarter of Irish children are now classified as either overweight or obese. In addition to this harrowing statistic is the recent report from the World Health Organisation that has suggested Ireland will become the most obese country in Europe by 2030.
This rise in obesity will inevitably lead to an increase in heart disease and other chronic health problems, such as type-2 diabetes. These are just some examples of the lifelong reasons that keeping children active is more important than keeping ourselves active. While it could be argued that adults need to make more of an effort to look after their health as they get older, that takes for granted the good foundation that was laid for our own health when we were younger. While health essentially always declines with age, the problems that today’s youth will face when they grow older will be more common and oftentimes more extreme than the problems faced by today’s adults if the children of today are sent down the wrong path with regards to their approach to health.
Muscle & Bones
Teenagers and pre-teens develop at a much faster rate than adults, and the first few years of life really are the formative years that define our bodies’ health going forward. Children who are more active are far more likely to develop strong muscles and bones. This not only helps directly with their health, but also makes them far less susceptible to injuries or diseases such as osteoporosis, the development of which is greatly influenced by how strong our bones are when we are young.
Of course, part of the reason that children are far less active today than in the past is because of the rise of technology. Most people acknowledge the direct effects that this has in terms of issues like obesity, but many more subtle effects that this rise in technology has are often missed. For example, posture has long been affected by things like sitting in front of the television for too long. While that alone is cause for concern, it is the rise of phone and tablet use in the last several years that is most worrying. These portable screens enable children to spend long periods of time in positions that will negatively affect posture. Furthermore, the way the hands are used to control these screens has been linked to a rise in carpal tunnel syndrome. As this phenomenon is so new, research on the long-term effects is still in the preliminary stages. This makes it difficult to say with any certainty what other unexpected consequences the rise in technology will have on the physical health of future generations.
Another fact that most parents will agree on is that the fall in physical activity will instil in children a laziness that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. People will not only become less capable of engaging in physical activity because of the issues like obesity and bone strength, but they will have less of a desire to do so. The longer we repeat any habit, the harder it is to break, and this is something that will be felt when the current generation reaches adulthood.
Furthermore, children will become less sociable and more isolated as they spend more and more time at home alone, or even in the company of other people, but without interacting. This will not only reduce their participation in things like team sports and outdoor activities, but will also have an effect on their mental health, which in turn will make them less inclined to get up and be active as adults.
As stated above, it is difficult to say with any real certainty how the new realities of modern life will affect the physical health of future generations. However, despite our greatly improved understanding of topics such as diet and physical health, the health of the general population is deteriorating. For this reason, the questions we are asking now are not if things will be worse in the future, but just how much worse they will be.