As the incidences of childhood obesity soar to epidemic levels, there have been increased calls for physical activity as a preventative measure. Physical activity yields a myriad of health benefits for children of all ages (Herrington & Brussoni, 2015). Physically-active children are less vulnerable to chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis. In contrast, inactive children are more prone to diseases and premature death (Sahoo et al., 2015). Whereas the manifestation of these chronic diseases occurs in adulthood, empirical evidence shows that the conditions start to develop in childhood or adolescence. Physical activity is a health imperative for children because it affects their physical and emotional wellness.
Physical activity encompasses all activities that involve body movement. It includes mundane everyday activities, active play, and organized sports. Physical activity can either be moderate or vigorous (Dyson, 2014). Moderate physical activity includes taking a walk, playing an instrument, dancing, or swimming, while vigorous physical activity involves organized sports, such as soccer and basketball. According to research, physical movement yields enhanced learning capabilities because it promotes overall growth and development, which are key prerequisites for mental, physical, and psychosocial health (Hartman et al., 2019). Also, physical activity is vital for children of all ages because it boosts their well-being (Dyson, 2014). Physically active children are more relaxed and confident; they have a better sleep, concentrate in school, get along with their friends, and form better interpersonal relationships. On the converse, sedentary behavior is detrimental to the well-being of children (Hartman et al., 2019). Physical activity or movement is, therefore, vitally important for a child’s overall well-being.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has set guidelines specifying the ideal level and frequency of physical movement that a child requires. WHO specifies that a child should devote a minimum of 60 minutes every day to physical activity (Lipnowski et al., 2012). Physical activity could be cycling, walking to school, taking the stairs, or play (Hartman et al., 2019). Children should also engage in strength training at least twice a week to strengthen their bones and muscles. The guidelines require that children under one year have sufficient floor play, and those who cannot move around should have at least half an hour of tummy time each day (Lipnowski et al., 2012). Children between the ages of one and three should have a minimum of three hours of energetic play each day, while those aged between three and five should have a minimum of three hours of play (Dyson, 2014). The specific age-appropriate guidelines should guide parents towards maximizing the benefits of physical activity.
WHO also guides that a child should be actively engaged in physical movement for as long as possible to develop their full genetic potential on motor skills. Children aged between five and eighteen years should have a minimum of one hour of mild to vigorous activity and more than a few hours of light physical activity (Lipnowski et al., 2012). In addition, the 5-18-year cohort should engage in activities that strengthen their bones and muscles (Hartman et al., 2019). Their regimen should comprise vigorous and moderate physical activity with a threshold of five hours of moderate physical activity per week and two-and-a-half hours of vigorous activity every week. Every two days, they should undertake physical activity that strengthens their muscles (Dyson, 2014). Overall, children should always remain physically engaged irrespective of their age.
There is consensus among WHO and pediatric experts that children should be accorded opportunities to engage in enjoyable and age-appropriate physical activities. Further, schools should implement a comprehensive approach to address physical activity and education in schools to offer various programs (McCurdy et al., 2010). The justification for these recommendations is that physical activity boosts school attendance and performance, cognitive performance, and classroom behaviors, such as on-task behavior. Overall, a child should have at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous aerobic exercise each day, and they should maintain the regimen for at least three days every week (Lipnowski et al., 2012). For muscle strengthening, the child should engage in muscle-strengthening physical exercise for one hour per day for three days in a week and a similar bone-strengthening regimen (Dyson, 2014). It is imperative that parents and teachers comply with WHO guidelines to ensure optimal physical fitness for the children.
Even with WHO and other experts’ guidelines and recommendations, current statistics show that compliance is below par. According to 2017 statistics, only less than 25% of children aged between 6 and 17 participated in 60 minutes of physical exercise every day. Similarly, only 26.1% of high school learners participated in physical activity over a period of one week. Also, only 51% of high school learners attended physical education classes in a typical week (Mnich et al., 2019). The statistics exemplify poor compliance, which implies that children’s lack of physical activity is a pervasive and growing problem.
Importance of Physical Activity
Involvement in physical movement is a protective factor against pathological behaviors and somatic illnesses. Physical activity offers equilibrium between self-control and aggressive behaviors, while sports foster a sense of belonging and teach a child about the concept of victory and defeat (Crova et al., 2014). In addition, regular movement and exercise facilitate better circulation of blood and supply of oxygen to the brain, increase tolerance and resilience to stress, and enhanced muscle and bone density. According to empirical evidence, adolescents who do not espouse maturity in their cognitive control system are more susceptible to diverse risk behaviors because cognitive maturity is responsible for the impulses that regulate engagement in risk behaviors (Kohl & Cook, 2013). Overall, physical activity contributes to a child’s physiological and psychosocial well-being.
Physical activity improves cognitive functions and mental health in children. Researchers have found a relationship between sporting activity and cognitive development in children (Lipnowski et al., 2012). The vital cognitive functions include attention, memory, executive, and visual-spatial functions. Other complex cognitive functions are language functions, abstract and cause and effect thinking functionalities (Kohl & Cook, 2013). Most studies report that physical movement and exercise positively influence executive functions that are usually developing in late childhood. Besides, regular exercise leads to increased oxyhemoglobin, which boosts executive functions (Dyson, 2014). These findings infer that the earlier a child starts engaging in physical activity, the better their cognitive development, and the more they will grow into a well-balanced adult.
Physical activity improves mental health in children by preventing depression and anxiety and improving moods and other facets of well-being. Hartman et al. (2019), in a meta-analysis study in children between 3 and 18 years, found a relationship between physical activity and positive mental health outcomes. In contrast, sedentary behavior has been linked to poor mental health outcomes (Hartman et al., 2019). The empirical findings attest that physical activity is a preventative factor against mental illness and its attendants.
Physical exercise yields improve psychosocial outcomes, such as goal orientation, self-efficacy, self-concept, and social behaviors. These attributes determine the child’s current and future engagement in physical activity (Kohl & Cook, 2013). According to Mnich et al. (2019), children who engage in outdoor physical activity have a higher quality of life than those who do not engage in outdoor physical activity. In addition, those children who are consistent in indoor games have higher self-esteem and self-efficacy than those who are not compatible (Mnich et al., 2019). Overall, there is a positive correlation between physical activity and the psychosocial well-being of children.
Physical activity affects brain development and maturation in young children. Physical movement increases the child’s heart rate, which increases the supply of oxygen to the brain and facilitates the release of vital hormones responsible for the growth and development of brain cells. Besides, physical exercise stimulates the growth of new cell connections, effectively promoting brain plasticity, especially in the brain’s cortical spheres (Mnich et al., 2019). In addition, because brain development is at its peak in a person’s formative years, physical activity would bolster brain maturation, which will be important for the child even in adulthood (Dyson, 2014). The inference is that if a child is physically active, their brain develops and matures more aptly.
Physical activity improves cognitive function in children. In a Meta-analysis conducted on 58 articles by Bluma and Lipowska (2018), the findings showed a correlation between cognitive function and physical exercise in children. The results showed that physically-active children had improved capability to focus attention on a task and higher operational memory and cognitive flexibility. Learners who participated in sports were calmer during lessons and had higher concentration levels in the classroom, especially after three hours when attention and focus tend to deteriorate. In contrast, physically inactive children who spent more time playing games and watching television demonstrated high cognitive function deterioration (Bluma & Lipowska, 2018). Physical activity is, therefore, a core factor in the cognitive development of children.
Physical exercise improves a child’s executive functioning. According to empirical findings, children who are physically active have better executive functions, and their ability to plan is better than that of those who lead sedentary lifestyles (Mnich et al., 2019). Further findings show that physically-active children have better cognitive abilities and inhibitory controls due to the well-developed anterior prefrontal cortex which is responsible for improved attention (Dyson, 2014). There is a positive correlation between physical activity and executive functions, such as attention and control.
There is also empirical evidence that physical exercise improves a child’s thinking ability. In a scientific study, Bluma and Lipowska (2018) found that there is a nexus between physical activity and thinking capabilities in children. As compared to their sedentary peers, children who participated in sports exhibited well-developed creative thinking, abstract thinking, cause-and-effect modalities, and better planning. Overall, children who engaged in sports achieved relatively better grades in school. The underlying reason is that physical activity led to better executive functioning and emotional development, contributing to success in school (Bluma & Lipowska, 2018). Physical movement yields positive academic performance due to the improved brain function and psychosocial skills.
Implications of Sedentary Lifestyles
According to health experts, sedentary behaviors have become commonplace in modern society as most children spend most of their free time playing video games and watching television. These sedentary behaviors have a negative impact on physical activity and lead to disease risk factors that transcend childhood (Bluma & Lipowska, 2018). Similarly, different types of physical exercise address various health concerns, which suggest that children should have a varied regimen that includes structured and unstructured activities, aerobic and resistant exercises, and short and long sessions. Collectively, such a diverse regimen will offer the most significant benefit (Sahoo et al., 2015). For optimal outcomes, physical exercise should be aligned with the developmental changes in the child’s motor skills and exercise capacity, which are the determinants of the activities that the child can successfully engage in. Overall, if the child engages in frequent activities in the course of the day, they gain short-term benefits for their cognitive and mental health, which presents the opportunity to build confidence, and practice skills that promote sustained engagement in physical exercise.
There are direct and indirect health implications of inactivity. Empirical evidence suggests that it is vitally important for children to continuously participate in physical activity because it stimulates and maintains the chronic adaptations that could lead to key health benefits (Sahoo et al., 2015). At the initial stages of adolescence, involvement in physical activity declines, which attests to the importance of maturation and growth in evaluating cognitive and physiological health (Bluma & Lipowska, 2018). Physical activity may affect key aspects of maturation and somatic development in children leading to health implications.
Growing evidence also points to increased cases of pediatric obesity caused by the modern sedentary lifestyle. As a result, children are experiencing impaired mental, physical, and psychosocial health and poor cognitive, physical, and academic performance, unlike children of past generations (Sahoo et al., 2015). The instigating factors of the current lifestyle are attributed to the technological revolution, which has left children engaged in devices more than movement. It is also documented that most children do not engage in either moderate or vigorous physical exercise for the recommended minimum of one hour per day (Mnich et al., 2019). Similarly, one-third of children can go up to five days without engaging in any physical exercise (Bluma & Lipowska, 2018). The trend has contributed to poor health indicators, such as increased pediatric obesity, decreased fitness, reduced flexibility and muscular strength, lower cardio respiratory capacity, and an increased risk for disease. Other than the immediate effects, the long-term effects are adulthood morbidity and mortality (Sahoo et al., 2015). Physical inactivity in childhood has far-reaching consequences on the health of an individual
Childhood obesity is one of the gravest public health challenges in the 21st century. There is scholarly evidence that obesity occurs when there is an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure, creating a positive energy balance. The problem is more prevalent in urban settings, mainly due to a sedentary lifestyle (Sahoo et al., 2015). At present, television viewing among children has dramatically increased, contributing to the sedentary lifestyle. It is estimated that every additional hour of watching television increases obesity prevalence by 2% (Mnich et al., 2019). The problem is that as children spend more time in sedentary behaviors, they spend lesser time in physical activity. Further, a sedentary lifestyle correlates with lifestyle diseases, such as Coronary Heart Disease and Type 2 Diabetes, which have been found to begin in childhood, with obesity being a key contributing factor (Sahoo et al., 2015). Overall, physical inactivity has serious health implications because it increases the risk factors for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity glucose intolerance, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and hyperlipidemia. Other health conditions linked with lack of physical activity are lung, colon, breast, and endometrial cancers, as well as low bone density (Dyson, 2014). It is, therefore, factual to conclude that physical activity is a preventative factor for morbidity and mortality.
From the available statistics, most children do not meet the current physical exercise guidelines stipulated by the World Health Organization (Mnich et al., 2019). As a result, there is a need for urgent scaling up of interventions, policies, and programs that could increase activity and movement among children. It is also imperative for stakeholders to intervene and invest in varied causes and inequities that lead to and perpetuate poor participation in physical exercise to strengthen opportunities in families, schools, and communities. Such interventions would improve future generations’ health, effectively supporting the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
In the past, stakeholders have implemented various school-based inventions to increase participation in physical activity. There have also been initiatives to promote the physical and mental health of the children. These interventions have proven that improved physical exercise during school hours leads to the children’s better psychological, physical, and mental well-being (Sahoo et al., 2015). The success of such programs notwithstanding, there is a need to improve the school-based interventions. Educators can leverage public schools to implement interventions that are integrated with the curriculum. When children are in school, they are easier to be taught, and most children receive their education in public schools. Besides, education stakeholders can deploy qualified educators and physical activity professionals who can steer the process of integrating physical activity in the schools’ culture.
The implementation of the school-based interventions would require the stakeholders to address key methodological issues. They should develop the intervention using the best available evidence. Prior to full implementation, the program should be pilot tested in similar settings as those of the actual school intervention environment. Besides, the implementers should uphold program fidelity by ensuring that it is implemented as per initial intentions and that it is reported on and monitored. To ensure program impact, it is imperative to track implantation fidelity and incorporate a systematic evaluation of the effectiveness and process of the school-based physical exercise intervention.
Social and government policies can also potentially promote physical activity among children. Research indicates that in the last decade, there has been in the time that children spend watching television or playing virtual games on their devices (Dyson, 2014). The sedentary lifestyles attest that children naturally prefer passive entertainment, which prevents them from engaging in meaningful physical activity. The inference is that children associate watching television and engaging in social media with convenience, pleasure, and independence, whereas physical activity is considered outdated. These findings suggest that there is more to be done to change the meanings of physical activities and social perceptions of an active lifestyle. Policymakers should implement fiscal policies that offer incentives to organizations that provide physical activities to children. The government should also invest in developing convenient recreational facilities that can spur physical activity in residential areas.
Physical movement is a health imperative for children as it affects their physical, mental, psychosocial, and learning capabilities. Physical inactivity is responsible for lifestyle diseases, poor cognitive abilities, lack of brain development, mental health impairments, obesity, and low learning outcomes. However, even with the availability of empirical evidence showing the negative implications of lack of physical exercise, compliance with WHO guidelines is still low. Even so, there is room for school-based interventions in public schools because they would benefit a large population of young children. If well implemented and tracked, such interventions can yield improved social, psychological, physical, and learning outcomes. The overarching objective should be to develop and implement multi-faceted and school-based interventions that can enhance the execution of physical activity to improve the children’s overall well-being. As a result, the children would benefit from regular physical activity, enabling them to build their self-esteem and social skills, which are primary indicators of positive wellness.
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