Why Are American Kids as Sedentary as Senior Citizens?

When I first started talking to my husband about the possibility of homeschooling our children, he warned me, “You’re almost certainly not going to be able to convince me, but you’re welcome to try.” These days, whenever we see a new study on education or the state of American childhood, he exhales and says, “Thank God we’re homeschooling.”

The latest study to make us appreciate our decision to homeschool was reported this week in the Washington Post. The article noted:

In an eye-opening study involving 12,529 Americans ages 6 to 85, researchers mapped how physical activity changes over a lifetime. The participants, part of the 2003-2004 and 2005-2006 cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, wore accelerometers, devices that measure movement, for seven consecutive days. For the purposes of the analysis, researchers counted all types of movement, not just exercise.

According to the new data, there seems to be a sharper-than-expected decline during childhood—starting in elementary school and continuing through middle school and high school. By age 19, the average American is as sedentary as a 60-year-old.

Why is it that America’s children and teenagers are moving so little? You can likely guess the culprits: technology and the modern school day. Kids are parked in front of televisions, smart phones and tablets for most of their waking hours outside of school, and inside school buildings, they have next to no recess time, and awaken before their biological clocks would have them get up in the morning.

The findings of this study are remarkable in part for how unremarkable they are. Hearing that America’s young people are sedentary, physically addicted to screens, and being educated in a manner antithetical to the science of child development is hardly groundbreaking information.

Our nation’s children spend more time in the classroom with no academic return on the increased instruction time. On the contrary, recent experiments in classrooms granted more recess time led to better academic outcomes. When kids are allowed to get their wiggles out outside the classroom, they are able to focus when it really matters. Armed with this information, how have we responded? American classrooms replace regular chairs with “wiggle chairs” and watch the further decline of our nation’s young people.

In his new book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska details just how addicted our young people are to screens:

Kids over 13 are spending nearly two-thirds of their waking hours with their eyes tied down and bodies stationary… Whether to label all of these behaviors ‘addictions’ is debatable, but social psychologists Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Coulombe estimate that many relatively average young American males have played more than 14,000 hours of video games by the time they turn 21… Another way of conceiving of this: since they are awake barely 100 hours per week, this translates to half of all waking hours for 280 weeks (more than five years) over the course of their childhoods.

All of this information is readily available and has been the topic of discussion among experts and parents for some time. So at what point will the slow atrophy of an entire generation become alarming enough to elicit seismic changes to our education system and our parenting techniques? The number of parents electing to remove their children from classrooms in order to educate them at home is skyrocketing in part due to the nature of the modern classroom, but there is a limit to how many families have the ability to homeschool their children. So what about the rest of America’s youth?

On a podcast promoting his new book, Senator Ben Sasse shared with The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol an anecdote about meeting a group of Israeli soldiers while visiting the country about three years ago. Sasse told Kristol about his exchange with the Israeli young adults:

They said, “Well, we have a bunch of cousins, we have cousins on Long Island, so we spend time in the US. And it’s great, America’s great, we love your pop culture. But frankly, what’s weird to me,” one of these kids, he’s 16, 17, said, “is that I play an online video game with a lot of my cousins and their buddies, and we play through the internet and it’s great and we have this relationship, but I realized that, next year, I’m going to put down the video game and I’m going to be at real war and they’re still going to be playing a video game.” And he said, “I don’t know if your kids would be able to defend the world, if they needed to defend your country, the way my friends here and I have to do. A video game is an escape, but we don’t think it’s possibly the actual meaning of life, and some of our cousins on Long Island don’t seem like they know that.” It was telling.

Imagine what might happen in an emergency if the draft was reinstated in this country. Who would be defending us? Our future soldiers would be as physically untested as their fathers. How many could even make it through basic training? Our country can’t be defended by the small bunch of homeschooled kids who spent more than an hour a day outside.

Studies like this one should be prompting Americans to ask ourselves a lot of tough questions while our children are still young. If our nineteen-year-olds are as sedentary as sixty-year olds, we should all shudder to think of what they will actually look like when (or if) they ever reach sixty.

Image: By Gamesingear (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Grandma

    The middle aged women who now dominate teaching want quiet, docile, unchallenging children in their classrooms. They want the boys to be like girls and the girls to be like themselves. And they’re winning!