With just days to go until the annual national shape-up begins, maybe you need more than the usual New Year's resolutions to get up off the couch.
Even if you go to the gym most mornings — and good for you! — experts say the real key is to make your entire lifestyle more active by building movement into your entire day.
Movement is essential at all ages, and is linked closely to mental ability as well as physical resilience. But experts agree that it's a habit best started as early as possible.
To find out more, we talked with Lisa Witherspoon, co-director of the Active Gaming Research Laboratories at the University of South Florida.
Anything with "gaming'' in the title might sound like fun, but her specialty could hardly be more serious: getting kids moving.
Americans of all ages spend too much time on their backsides, and lots of experts think that's a major cause of the obesity epidemic and a growing list of attendant maladies.
But Witherspoon will not tell you and your kids to put down your beloved electronic devices. Her research centers on finding ways to use technology to increase physical activity among children and young adults. She spoke with the Times recently about why society fosters inactivity and how we can change our behavior for overall better fitness and health.
What happens, physically, to inactive people?
There's been lots of research on this topic. The first and most obvious result is obesity or weight gain. Also well documented are the problems inactivity causes related to heart disease — blood pressure, cholesterol, circulation, heart rate, diabetes. Bones lose density, putting you at risk for fractures and osteoporosis. Muscle strength declines, limiting you physically so you're not able to do as much, even just around the house. Balance and coordination decline also as muscle strength declines. Basically, if you don't move, you're slowly killing your body. It's bad for people of all ages to be inactive but even worse for children, because they are growing and they don't develop strong bodies, something that's hard to reverse later in life.
Why are some kids running around all the time and others seem glued to the TV?
It has a great deal to do with parents and other role models at home. If the parents aren't active, chances are the kids won't be active. Schools are not doing their part to increase physical activity levels. In fact, many schools are eliminating or reducing physical education and recess time. So, if they aren't getting it at home or at school, it's no surprise that kids are becoming accustomed to a sedentary lifestyle.
Do parents only need to worry about activity if their child is overweight or obese?
Kids who are not active are at a major disadvantage for their health. This isn't about being fat or skinny. We want them healthy so their bones and their hearts, their muscles and their lungs are strong. Active people live longer, have fewer health problems, less pain and live independently longer. The idea is to be active for overall good health.
Tell us about your research.
Right now what I do is ongoing research on different active gaming or "exergaming" products. I'm also working with Hillsborough schools to hopefully start a pilot program next fall to increase physical activity throughout the day in schools. Students will be instructed to get up and move for five to 10 minutes each hour, then continue the class in their seats.
What is active gaming?
It's also referred to as exergaming. Some examples are Dance Dance Revolution, Nintendo Wii, Xbox Kinect, Gamercize Steppers, Light space, HopSports. The concept is to require people to use their bodies to play the game. We have two labs at USF where we collaborate with different departments across campus and research the health benefits of these games and whether kids like them enough to use them. We want them to make the choice to move at a level that will impact their fitness, their health.
You are also working to educate parents. What should they do to foster physical activity in their children?
Parents can help kids develop movement skills, an important factor in kids being active for a lifetime. Kids must be confident in moving. It doesn't always come naturally.
Do you mean they may need to be taught coordination?
If they aren't comfortable moving their bodies, they are less likely to be active throughout life. It's embarrassing if they don't know how to throw and catch and skip and run or if they're clumsy or not good at a game or sport. You're made fun of, you aren't picked for the team until last and you are less likely to be active. Some kids have to be taught how to move.
Isn't that the purpose of gym class?
Phys ed in schools was designed to do that, to teach children these skills. Unfortunately it was perceived as a time where kids simply played games. Phys ed isn't about playing games, it's about learning skills so kids can be active.
How can phys ed turn people off?
Remember dodgeball? That game hurt. You were a target and eliminated from the game, which is scary to children. Failure is difficult and not a feeling at an early age that makes you want to keep playing or play on your own. Some kids loved it because they were good at it. But it turned off a lot of people. We don't teach games like that anymore to our students who want to be phys ed teachers.
What are you doing to help parents help their kids?
We want to work with parents to provide them with tools to help teach their kids these skills, to throw a ball with them, for example, and do things in a non-threatening, non-competitive way, that makes them more comfortable moving. We are in the process of writing a grant to create educational tools to assist parents in this process. They need to learn what to do before they can help their children. Many never really felt good moving or found something they enjoyed or that made them feel comfortable or successful.
How much daily activity is enough?
Sixty minutes of moderate to vigorous activity for school-aged children. Every day. And very few are achieving this. Adults need less, about 150 minutes per week at a minimum.
How do you fulfill that requirement?
Make a commitment to move more. Any activity is good. Start out slowly and work up to a moderate to vigorous pace. We are just telling families to get up and move, walk in the neighborhood, do active video games, swimming, ride bikes, play catch, Frisbee. Kids need parents involved. If parents don't participate, it's difficult to get kids to buy in. Sometimes you just have to create games, get outside and play.
How do you do this without your family staging a revolt? Is there a wrong way to do it?
Yes, we've seen it. Making kids run laps and do things that aren't fun, things that just hurt or are boring will keep kids from wanting to be active. Parents should ask the kids, "What would you like to do?" Get the kids to tell you what's fun to them. Parents should also monitor screen time and shut down sedentary time each afternoon.
How much sedentary screen time should be allowed?
Most national professional groups recommend no more than two hours of recreational screen time a day. That doesn't include time spent on homework or school-related projects. I'm talking about limiting TV viewing, surfing the Web, video and computer games, social media. Research tells us that most kids get more than 40 hours of recreational screen time a week.