Is Playing Computer Games Exercise?
New “Wake-up Calls” About Overweight and Obesity
By Doug Abrams
Two reports published last week renew concerns about the harmful effects of overweight and obesity among children and adults. The reports track a perfect storm that threatens the present and future health of today’s younger generation.
In last week’s first report, nearly a quarter of surveyed children between the ages of five and 16 told Britain’s Youth Sports Trust that they consider playing computer games with friends to be a form of physical activity. (Among seven- and eight-year-olds, the percentage was nearly a third.) The children reported that they play sports or otherwise engage in exercise about 30 to 40 minutes a day (often in mandated school physical education programs), but spend nearly three hours a day playing with technology. Without effective public health intervention in the foreseeable future, the Trust predicts that children risk becoming “hostages to handheld devices.”
Last week’s second report, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, estimates that more than two-thirds of Americans over the age of 25 (nearly 75% of men and nearly 67% of women) are now either overweight or obese. For the first time, more American adults are obese than overweight (67.6 million vs. 65.2 million). The percentages are the highest ever, substantially higher than ones reported in a similar study 20 years ago.
Meanwhile, National Public Radio estimates that more than a third of American children are overweight or obese, a troublesome circumstance because (as former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said in 2001) “adolescents who are overweight are at high risk of becoming overweight or obese adults.”
A major reason for the substantial increases in overweight and obesity, according JAMA researcher Lin Yang as reported in American Health Line last week, is that technology has “changed the dynamic of our lifestyle.” With trends moving in the wrong direction amid accelerating technological advances, Dr. Yang labels the new estimates a “wake-up call” for action in “multiple sectors.”
“Increase Team Sport Participation Among All Students”
One of these sectors is broad-based community youth sports programs, the subject of this column. In 2012, Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) featured a study that measured the positive effects on child health of various forms of physical exercise. These forms included active commuting to school (such as by walking or biking), regular participation in school physical education classes, and participation in team sports.
Dr. Keith M. Drake and his team found that active commuting to school has some residual positive effect on a student’s body weight, but that participation in high school physical education classes does not. But there is more. The researchers also found that “[t]eam sports participation had the strongest and most consistent inverse association with weight status.” The study estimates that overweight and obesity would “decrease by 11% and 26% respectively, if adolescents played on at least 2 sports teams per year.”
The researchers’ recommendation thus placed community youth sports programs front and center. “Obesity prevention programs should consider strategies to increase team sport participation among all students.”
Good News and Bad News
The Pediatrics study demonstrates the public health potential of community youth sports programs, but these programs continue to fall short in many communities. And recent accounts, appearing in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, suggest that youth sports enrollments appear to be declining.
On the positive side of the ledger, an estimated 35 million children — nearly half of all American youngsters — join at least one organized sports program each year. But on the negative side, about 70% of these youngsters quit playing organized sports by the time they turn 13, and nearly all quit by the time they turn 15. Indeed, the dropout rate begins accelerating as early as age 10.
Some children drop out of a sport because they enrolled as an experiment and learned they did not like the sport after all. Particularly in the early teen years, some youngsters stop playing when they realize that they lag behind their peers in skills or strength, and others stop when they develop new interests or find part-time employment.
But when researchers asked youngsters why they drop out, the reasons given most often were that practice sessions and games stopped being fun because parents and coaches imposed too much pressure to win, yelled at them for making errors, and cut or benched less talented players. Youngsters disaffected by adult-induced pressures can find other ways to pass their free time – including, as the British Youth Sports Trust study indicates, reliance on computer games and other technology.
Four Strategies For Change Through Sports
How can community youth sports systems counter the trends toward more sedentary childhood and adolescent lifestyles identified by public health professionals? At least four potential strategies come to mind.
First, communities can maintain youth sports systems that take equal opportunity more seriously. Public authorities (particularly the public school district and the parks and recreation department) can exercise the “power of the permit.” This acknowledged power enables local government to grant permits to use fields, gymnasiums, and other public sports venues to a mix of private groups that field not only travel teams, but also recreational and house-league teams. (My recent 13-page law review article, explaining the power’s legal basis, is available at http://digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1232&context=jbtl ).
In his recent autobiography, hockey legend Bobby Orr explained equal opportunity in youth sports this way: “[M]ost of the kids who want to participate aren’t elite at all – by definition, they can’t all be elite. Most kids are average. That’s what average means.” “Most kids,” he adds, “just want to play a sport for the sake of participating. Those are the ones we should be helping as much as we can. . . .”
Second, as the Aspen Institute’s Project Play recently urged in the report cited below, “equal opportunity” means embracing public and private initiatives that reach out to segments of the youth population that are chronically under-served by community sports systems. These segments include groups that I have written about in several prior columns — girls, inner city youth, poor youth, minority youth, and youth with disabilities.
Third, parents and coaches at practices and games can stop behaving in ways that lead youngsters to quit in droves before their time. Fourth, parents in their own households can “keep the fires burning” with positive reinforcement that makes continued participation in sports fun and fulfilling for their children.
Causes For Optimism
Last week’s two reports remind us that as technology increasingly attracts children’s attention, adults disserve the public health when we close the doors on many aspiring young athletes and then produce bumper crops of athletic dropouts each year. The inequities that mark access to youth sports, and the persistently high dropout rates, mean that the nation squanders opportunities to provide healthy athletic activity for millions of children. Lost opportunities for this activity mean lost opportunities to impart the lifelong value of a lifestyle rich in physical exercise, not only through team sports, but also through such invigorating carryover activities as swimming, bicycling and jogging.
I close this column with optimism because leading national experts have diagnosed the national overweight/obesity epidemic, and they are busy advocating for meaningful solutions through organized sports and physical activity generally. Among the leading national experts are these friends of mine whom I thank for teaching me about the obesity epidemic and other health challenges that summon constructive responses by the youth sports community:
- Rick Wolff is a strong advocate for broad-based youth sports systems that serve the physical and emotional needs of all children who wish to play. For years now, his weekly WFAN radio show has grappled from all sides with important youth sports parenting issues, including what he calls “the obesity problem with kids. “Sports are so valuable to our kids,” he writes on this blog, “because they learn key lessons in life, including the overall benefit of being physically fit. But we’re finally seeing the diminishing lack of fun catching up to our kids. . . . If kids don’t feel that they’re enjoying themselves, they do end up quitting.”
- Led by executive director Tom Farrey, the Aspen Institute’s Project Play has marshaled thoughtful leaders to map national strategies for advancing child athletes’ health and well-being. A few days ago, ESPN correspondent Farrey and his Physical Literacy Working Group released a report that warrants national attention, “Physical Literacy in the United States: A Model, Strategic Plan, and Call to Action,” http://plreport.projectplay.us/.
This new report follows national roundtables and “Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game,” an equally thoughtful report that the Project released in January following deliberations by more than 70 national experts at a three-day symposium and ideas session. The report posits wholesome youth sports as an important antidote for obesity and inactivity in youth. http://aspenprojectplay.org/sites/default/files/Aspen%20Institute%20Project%20Play%20Report.pdf
- MomsTEAM Institute maintains a leading youth sports voice on a wide range of important matters central to health, safety, nutrition, and successful parenting. The Institute, and www.MomsTeam.com, continues to contribute a prolific array of writing and speaking about the causes of overweight and obesity in children, and about the potential remedies that sports and physical activity offer. Links to the Institute’s collection of perceptive writings on the obesity epidemic by executive director Brooke de Lench, director of research Lindsey Barton Straus, and expert contributors begin at http://www.momsteam.com/search/node/obesity.
- Positive Coaching Alliance (www.positivecoach.org), and its founder and CEO Jim Thompson, remain leading national voices for coaches, parents, and league administrators who seek to meet the emotional and physical needs of all boys and girls who wish to experience the exhilaration of sports and physical activity. By providing time-tested strategies for encouraging broad participation, PCA’s influence is a positive force for the health and well-being of youth athletes.
- Robert M. Malina, PhD, FACSM, is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin. His resume says it all.
Dr. Malina has earned PhD degrees in physical education and also anthropology. His teaching and research career has spanned anthropology and kinesiology, and includes more than 800 publications. His primary areas of research are the biological growth and maturation, performance and physical activity of children and adolescents. This research has included studies of American and European youth, indigenous populations in southern Mexico, and youth athletes in a variety of sports including swimming, diving, gymnastics, track and field, American football and soccer among others.
Obesity has been a central discussion item for the various panels on which Dr. Malina has served. For example, he co-chaired the expert panel on Youth Physical Activity for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2003-2005), and served on the Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, Youth Health Subcommittee (2007-2008) and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, Committee on Fitness Measures and Health Outcomes in Youth (2011-2012).
- Bob Bigelow, a leading youth sports reform advocate and a former NBA player, provides a foundation for countering the pediatric obesity epidemic. In his aptly titled book, “Just Let the Kids Play,” he says this: “Youth sports systems that are created for the greatest good of the greatest number of children will be the right choices for all children — from the child who appears to have the greatest athletic potential at a young age, to the child who may not show that potential until later, to the child who never shows any athletic talent.”
In my younger days, people used to say that “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” These devoted friends are part of the solution, and they deserve the gratitude of all Americans who sense the positive roles that sports and physical activity can play in advancing children’s health and well-being.
Sources: Future Foundation, The Class of 2035: Promoting a Brighter and More Active Future For the Youth of Tomorrow, http://www.youthsporttrust.org/media/24072132/the_class_of_2035_report.pdf; Hannah Richardson, BBC News, Youths Becoming Hostages to Handheld Devices, Says Charity (June 23, 2015); Lin Yang & Graham A. Colditz, Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity in the United States, 2007-2012, JAMA Internal Medicine, June 22, 2015; Am. Health Line, Study: Significant Uptick in Overweight, Obese U.S. Residents, June 23, 2015; U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services, The Surgeon General’s Call To Action To Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity (2001); National Public Radio, Morning Edition, Childhood Obesity (July 1, 2015); Keith M. Drake et al., Influence of Sports, Physical Education, and Active Commuting to School on Adolescent Weight Status, Pediatrics, vol. 130, p. e296 (Aug. 2012); Bobby Orr, Orr: My Story (2013), p. 23; Bob Bigelow, Just Let the Kids Play (2001), p. 23.