WASHINGTON - Maybe they spend most of the first year of their little lives asleep, but babies need some room to move around, touch their toes and let their muscles hook up with the brain, a national association of fitness educators says.
"There's been this attitude that we don't even need to think about babies and physical activity, because babies are naturally active," said Judith Young, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. "Yet they're too often left immobilized in infant seats or playpens or in front of the TV. We need to make sure they get a good start toward an active lifestyle."
While there have long been guidelines for physical activity for elementary-school children, adolescents and adults, the association on Wednesday issued the first standards for what the under-5 crowd should be doing daily.
Jane Clark, a University of Maryland professor who teaches the study of physical activity, headed an expert panel that wrote the new guidelines.
"We're trying to lay a foundation for a lifetime of physical activity, which everyone needs to be healthy," she said.
Research has shown that youngsters who aren't active in their first five years are likely to remain sedentary and more likely to become overweight as they get older.
"Promoting and fostering enjoyment of movement and motor-skill confidence and competence at any early age will help to ensure healthy development and later participation in physical activity," Clark said.
The learning and practice of movements isn't just about physical prowess. "It's about learning about relationships between actions and consequences, understanding that 'if I do this, then this will happen,"' Clark said. "It takes a lot of this to hook the brain to the muscles it controls."
Clark said the committee - composed of doctors, motor-development experts and exercise specialists - found very little guidance for parents or early-childhood educators about activity in the very young. "And a lot of what we found was vague or not well grounded in science," she said.
Parents who enroll their children in day-care or preschool programs need to pay attention not only to how the programs foster cognitive development, but also motor skills as well.
"Most state certification guidelines for these programs don't address this, but day-cares tend to deliver what parents say is important," Clark said.
For Dr. Nazrat Mirza, a pediatrician at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, the new guidelines are part of an attempt to defuse the country's greatest public health threat: an increasingly overweight population, including a doubling of obesity among children over the past 20 years.
"We're seeing incidence of obesity as high as 40 percent in the children we're treating, and the negative health consequences are also showing up earlier - asthma, sleep apnea, hypertension, as well as the psychosocial impacts of being overweight as a young child," Mirza said.
"The rapid rise of obesity is due to decreased physical activity and increased sedentary activities such as watching television and computer and video games, along with increased calorie intake in fast food and soft drinks," she said.
While there's no evidence that being overweight in early childhood means an overweight adult, there is a correlation as children grow older, Mirza said.
"So promoting positive behaviors early on in childhood may lead to persistence of these behaviors into adulthood," she said. "We need to involve the whole family, the whole community, in this prevention effort."
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(Lee Bowman covers health and science for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail BowmanL@shns.com)