Movement, play and sports: What are the benefits?
Sports, movement and play yield abundant benefits and can enhance the physical, mental and social health of children, today and long into the future. Just about any kind of activity is beneficial, from brisk walking, cycling or pickup games to after-school training and team sports.
The benefits of physical activity
- Physical activity in childhood and adolescence can increase muscular strength, improve the ability to perform complex movements, build bone, improve mood, and increase heart and lung fitness.
- Physical activity can help prevent inactivity-related diseases that occur in childhood, including Type 2 diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, asthma, sleep apnea and depression.
- Physically active children are more likely to be physically active adults—and less likely to meet an early death or develop heart disease, breast and colon cancer, diabetes, obstructive lung disease, depression, anxiety or osteoarthritis.
- Physical activity can help to prevent obesity and aid in its treatment.
- Physical activity leads to better brain structure and function. It can improve thinking and mental performance, including focus, memory, attention and academic achievement.
The problem of inactivity
Over the past 30 years, children in the United States have become gradually less active, less able to do physical activities, and less healthy. Inactive lifestyles are reducing the capacity of children and adolescents to function and develop normally and to achieve peak health.
Inactivity has added to a growing wave of unhealthy weight gain and obesity. In the U.S., obesity has doubled among children over the past 30 years and quadrupled in adolescents.
- About 19% of children and adolescents aged two to 19 in the U.S. are obese, according to data from 2015-2016.
- An additional 15% are overweight.
On average, children spend about eight of their waking hours each day doing things that involve no physical activity, depriving them of the health benefits of movement, play and sports.
In the U.S., only about a quarter of young children meet the U.S. government recommendation of an hour of moderate-to-vigorous activity every day. And activity levels actually decline in adolescence.
- Fewer than half of American children have adequate heart and lung fitness.
- Less than 40% of children and adolescents regularly participate in organized sports.
- Only about half of six-to-12-year-olds engaged in any organized sporting activity.
These trends increase the chance of poor health and chronic diseases during childhood. Inactivity also directly and indirectly increases the risk of serious and long-lasting diseases over the entire life span.
According to the World Health Organization’s Global recommendations on physical activity for health, 2010, physical inactivity is now the fourth leading risk for death worldwide.
Redesigning for “whole-life” physical activity
Fortunately, by increasing physical activity among children and adolescents, it is possible to prevent or even reverse many of these worrisome health problems. Parents, coaches, and healthcare professionals can help with encouragement and hands-on support.
However, achieving this transformation on a broad scale will be challenging, and require creating new opportunities for physical activity in every area of life.
The changes will need to go far beyond 20-minute physical education classes and 15-minute recess periods in school. They will involve attracting children to play, movement and sports again in a fundamental way—and drawing them away from sedentary behaviors and screen time. They will involve redesigning schools, recreational facilities, parks and other public areas.
As the World Health Organization has stressed, boosting “whole life” physical activity for children has to involve multiple settings and requires support from all sides–“play, games, sports, transportation, recreation, physical education, [and] planned exercise, in the context of family, school and community activities.”