If today’s kids were to race against their parents when they were kids, it wouldn’t even be a fair contest. In a mile-long run, contemporary children would finish a full minute and a half later than their parents did at their age in the 1980s. It’s a sad visual that exemplifies just how unhealthy our lifestyles have become.
An Australian research team examined cardiovascular data on 25 million children around the world dating back to the 1970s. While a handful of countries like Japan haven’t shown much change in their populations’ collective health, most nations have declined drastically.
When quantified, experts conclude that kids all over the globe are now 15% less fit than their parents. The change applies to both boys and girls, young kids and teenagers. In the United States specifically, children’s running endurance dropped by about 6% each decade since the 1970s. The average of other nations’ cardiovascular decline was 5% per decade, indicating that American kids were become unhealthier faster. (At least that’s one race they could win!)
The researchers chose to pay special attention to running times because they are one of the best indicators of lifelong health. “Young people can be fit in different ways,” said lead researcher Grant Tomkinson. “They can be strong like a weightlifter, or flexible like a gymnast, or skillful like a tennis player. But not all of these types of fitness relate well to health. The most important type of fitness for good health is cardiovascular fitness, which is the ability to exercise vigorously for a long time, like running multiple laps around the oval track.”
Why are kids slower today? Perhaps most obviously, they’re fatter. Children have much higher fat masses than their parents. The research team attributes 30-60% of the changes in endurance running times to the increase in obesity rates.
Another contributing factor is a lack of fitness and practice. Although kids are supposed to get at least one hour of exercise each day, according to the World Health Organization, 80% of kids around the world aren’t getting sufficient physical activity in their lives. In the United States, just one-third of American children actually exercise the recommended amount at this point.
Though a lot of people assume that kids would at least be getting exercise during gym class, the truth is that many U.S. schools have cut physical education from their curriculums. Without the occasional rigorous movement, how can we expect kids to counteract the impact of their increasingly unhealthy diets?
The slowing down of the world’s kids is a problem that not even performance enhancing drugs can fix. In order to avoid our kids “running” pitiful 16-minute miles, we’ll need to recommit ourselves to promoting fitness in an honest fashion.