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Will the Children Return to Play?

by Jay Heinrichs
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Coopertown Elementary School was the perfect place to play when I was a kid in the 1960s. The one-story, '50s-modern affair in the Philadelphia suburbs was surrounded by sports fields, baseball diamonds, and a basketball court. Adults were blessedly absent. Freed from supervision, we played pickup basketball games, chose up armies for toy-gun battles, or just rode our bikes around the empty parking lot. Nobody "exercised" or "worked out." We were just having fun.

I drove by Coopertown's playground last summer, and noticed that things hadn't changed--same fields, same swings, same maddeningly unclimbable oak tree--except for the kids. There weren't any. Adults were all over the place, running, biking, and hitting baseballs, while the only child in sight was a little boy playing catch with his dad. It was an eerie kind of role reversal, like some schoolyard version of Planet of the Apes. Where were the kids? My hunch is that a lot of them were at home, staring at glowing screens, having virtual fun.

Coopertown is just one example of a larger, radical transformation in American society: Much of childhood has been moved indoors. Unfortunately, kids are paying for this change with their bellies, as the percentage of American children who are obese has more than tripled over the last 4 decades.

Those 9 million overweight kids face a potentially scary future. If they don't slim down by age 20, their life expectancy will drop by up to 20 years. An obese child is more susceptible than his peers to diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and, maybe worst of all, sheer misery. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this summer surveyed the physical activity, doctor's visits, and sick days of obese kids and found their quality of life comparable to that of young cancer patients on chemotherapy.

The media rightly blame the supersized American diet. The portion size of French fries, hamburgers, and soda served in restaurants has grown by two to five times since 1977. But weight is an equation with two variables, so here's an equally alarming stat: The average teenager is 13 percent less physically active today than in 1980, according to Lisa Sutherland, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That's a lot more calories going in, and a lot less being burned.

What about sports and exercise programs? Kids aren't getting much of either. In the past decade alone, the number of children participating in daily physical-education classes at school has dropped from 42 to 29 percent. That said, children don't always need teachers to get them in shape. In fact, one of the most effective fitness "programs" may consist of nothing more than letting a kid loose on a playground. A 75-pound child riding a bike burns 90 calories in 45 minutes, the equivalent of one large chocolate-chip cookie. But a kid who spends a half-hour running around and another 15 minutes watching ants carry crumbs will burn more than 260 calories, equal to the amount in a large cookie and a Coke. In other words, just acting like a kid once a day can make the difference in body weight of a pound a month. Add walking, swimming, biking to school, or a weekly hike in the woods, and who needs to worry about exercise?

That's where you and I come in. This magazine's parent company, Rodale Inc.,
is launching a nationwide initiative to combat childhood obesity. Meanwhile, Rodale's sports magazines (Backpacker, Bicycling, Runner's World, and Scuba Diving) are studying how kids have fun on their own. We'll also be researching the ways adults can provide children safe opportunities for outdoor play. You'll see some answers in our magazines.

My personal hypothesis? The number of overweight kids will start shrinking the moment we see playgrounds like the one at Coopertown fill up with kids.

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