If he is ever going to follow his idol LeBron James into the NBA, 9-year-old Kahlige Fleglar knows he has to keep up his daily practice.
"I do dunks, half-court shots, free throws," he said. "It's my favorite sport."
Though Kahlige appears to get the proper amount of exercise in between 360-degree dunks on a lowered goal, researchers worry there are not enough children like him. And they say the time has come to do something about it.
In one of the most exhaustive reviews of research on physical activity in children and adolescents, published today in The Journal of Pediatrics, an expert panel co-led by a Medical College of Georgia researcher calls for 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day for children. Co-chairmen William Strong, professor emeritus of pediatrics and cardiology at MCG, and Robert Malina, a research professor at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, reviewed 1,200 abstracts and selected 850 research articles that were then reviewed by experts in that field.
Other advocates, such as the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, had already called for 60 minutes a day for children, and this study buttresses that argument, Dr. Strong said.
"The real issue is there have been a number of recommendations that have come out, but none of them have truly been evidence-based," he said. "This gives the evidence."
"We've been waiting for that to come out," said Dolly Lambdin, the immediate past president of the association and a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin.
The report comes at a time when there is growing concern over the number of overweight and obese children, which has doubled since 1980, and adolescents, which has tripled in that time, said Amy Winterfeld, the program principal in the Health Program at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. And lawmakers are responding - 33 states had legislation proposed this year that would have addressed physical activity, nutrition or both in schools; nine states, including South Carolina, passed them, Ms. Winterfeld said.
South Carolina will phase in mandatory PE for children in elementary school over the next five years to eventually reach a minimum of 150 minutes a week in 2009, said Ruth Earls, the physical education consultant to the South Carolina Department of Education.
"We actually had some success before a lot of people, so we're real pleased about that," Dr. Earls said.
Texas voted this year to extend its mandatory 30 minutes a day to include kindergarten through ninth grade, although it is still up to the Texas State Board of Education to accept and write the new policy, Dr. Lambdin said. Many states are willing but find it difficult to reconcile with mandated testing requirements, Ms. Winterfeld said.
"I think states are struggling with how do you pay if you're going to have a comprehensive physical education program, and how do you balance the physical activity against the increasing emphasis on academic achievement," she said.
Actually, Dr. Strong said, the increased PE doesn't mean a sacrifice for schools.
"We have not been able to find any detrimental impact of having physical activity, and in fact there is some evidence that it has a positive influence on academic performance," he said.
In addition, being able to run around and blow off steam has been known to improve behavior in class, Dr. Strong said.
Schools are an appropriate place to implement good physical activity programs, Dr. Malina said.
"In the schools the youngsters are, in a sense, a captive audience," he said. "And schools have the built-in infrastructure. They have the qualified teachers, and schools typically have the facilities."
Emphasizing it in schools could also convince parents that it needs to be a priority for them, too, Dr. Lambdin said.
"As long as everything else is more important than (children's) physical activity and learning how to take care of their bodies, then it's hard to sell it to the rest of the community as being really important," she said.
And the flip side should also be emphasized - being inactive is unhealthy, Dr. Malina said.
"This is becoming very, very clear that physical inactivity itself is a risk factor," he said. "The active state is the normal state; the inactive state is the abnormal state."
In fact, researchers are now seeing the overweight problem extended into children ages 2 to 5, who are also increasingly inactive, Dr. Strong said. And that means parents need to take responsibility for making sure their children get the recommended amount of activity, he said.
"You can't say it's somebody else's problem, it's TV's problem or the school's problem," Dr. Strong said. "Parents are key to what is going to happen, their advocacy and their role-modeling. Somebody has to be responsible, and we can't blame it on society in general, although it is a societal problem."
A lot is at stake in making sure children get more active now, Dr. Strong said.
"If we allow them to continue in the direction they're going, the epidemic of diseases we're going to see 20 and 30 years from now is going to be a phenomenal health care cost," he said.
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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