Summertime Equals Fitness Loss
Children get in shape during the summer, taking advantage of the sunny weather to spend their time biking and running, or playing T-ball and tennis.
Or do they?
Based on research by pediatricians and sports medicine experts at UW Health, "summer" may actually equal "sedentary" for elementary and middle-school aged kids, whose fitness levels slide in the absence of structure and supervision.
In a 2007 study, Aaron Carrel, MD, a UW Health pediatric endocrinologist, found that middle-schoolers who participated in a fitness-based physical education program at school lost fitness benefits they had gained over the summer.
"This was really surprising," says Dr. Carrel, who works with children who are struggling with weight issues in the UW Health's Pediatric Fitness Clinic. "We thought kids would be active during the summer, but they weren't. Clearly, fitness levels change when kids are out of school."
The study focused on a group of middle schoolers at Riverside Bluff Middle School in Stoughton. The youngsters participated in a year-long lifestyle-based physical education class that emphasized nontraditional activities like biking and walking.
At the beginning and end of the school year, Dr. Carrel and his colleagues at the Pediatric Fitness Clinic measured the fasting insulin levels, maximum oxygen consumption and body composition of the middle-schoolers.
After nine months in the fitness intervention program, the children had improved in each category.
Three months later, another measurement showed that maximum oxygen consumption had declined, while body fat percentage and fasting insulin levels had increased. None of the children were given specific exercise instructions during the summer.
Which may have been part of the problem, says Randy Clark, who manages the exercise science lab at UW Health Sports Medicine. With the easy entertainment offered by TV, videogames and the Internet, today's youth may not be as skilled at finding spontaneous ways to stay active.
"The results are almost inconceivable to someone from my generation," he says. "We lived outside, played capture the flag, kick the can and wiffle ball until it was too dark to see. In fact, I can remember coming in for dinner and sitting on the edge of my chair the whole time. I could not wait to be excused because I wanted to get back out to the action and play with my friends."
Dr. Carrel and Clark recommend that parents become more involved in helping their children stay fit—not just in the summer, but year-round—by role-modeling an active lifestyle and exercising/playing with their kids.
Date Published: 07/16/2009