Children and young people don't move enough. The consequences become apparent in adulthood at the latest, when they begin to suffer back problems, cardiovascular problems and metabolic disorders. According to paediatrician Urs Eiholzer, lack of exercise has more disastrous consequences than excess weight.
When they start school, children learn a new discipline besides reading and writing – sitting still. Starting school is the introduction to a sedentary life. On average, young people sit for nine hours a day, as shown by the European Helena study (Healthy Lifestyle in Europe by Nutrition in Adolescence, helenastudy.com). Even in their free time, children and young people are real couch potatoes, spending hours watching TV, playing video games and surfing social media. According to Swiss Health Promotion's BMI monitoring, one schoolchild in five is overweight or obese. This increases their risk of being overweight as an adult as well.
"Even if you're slim, if you don't move enough, you're at risk," says paediatrician Urs Eiholzer, professor at Zurich University and specialist in sports medicine and metabolic disorders. Lack of exercise leads to postural defects, joint and back problems, elevated blood lipid levels, high blood pressure and diabetes. So why are we still reluctant to exercise? "The need to conserve our strength is written into our genetic code. It was the only way for humans to survive recurring starvation," Eiholzer explains. But today, excessive reserves of fat are unnecessary and our lifestyle has changed: a lot of technology, little muscle power. Our bodies waste away if we don't move.
Key to change lies in childhood
Small children have a natural urge to move. They take every opportunity to climb, hop, jump. This is how they develop complex coordination skills in play – the basis for healthy development. It also has a positive influence on awareness, language, emotion and socialisation. In puberty, this childish urge to play fades, an adjustment science still knows too little about. In this phase, youngsters need new motivators, like sports clubs, according to Evelyne Dürr, kinesiologist and health management specialist at Helsana. "Teenagers want to have fun with their peers."
A love for sports develops earlier than that. According to Eiholzer, those who don't develop motor skills during early childhood can only make up for this to a certain extent later. He calls for children to go "out into the woods, out to the playground!" "Before puberty, physical activity makes children want to be more active." This corresponds with the research carried out at the Centre for Paediatric Endocrinology Zurich (PEZZ), which Eiholzer heads. Strength training has proved to be very efficient: the strength of both boys and girls increased significantly with one hour of training a week. The boys were also 10% more active outside training, which corresponds to the energy used in cycling 45 kilometres a week.
"Exercise and physical activity also affect mental performance," Dürr says. "Research shows that exercise at school has a positive impact on concentration and memory. Students also change their leisure behaviour and move more." It takes little incentive to inspire kids, "a simple Chinese jump rope is enough to get them going". The important things are open space and good examples. "Many schools are already putting these findings into practice by offering active learning and active breaks. Everyday family life is also important." Children copy their parents. If you prefer sitting at home to spending time in nature, you may be depriving your children of the opportunity to discover a range of forms of movement and materials. "Sometimes parents see too many dangers – but it's actually the children who aren't allowed to run free enough who are more injury prone," Eiholzer says. "Exercise should be fun," emphasises Dürr. "A childhood full of exercise by choice, not force lays the perfect foundations."
Text: Daniela Schori