Fitness: The Key to a Child’s Future

“If a young person is generally unfit now, then they are more likely to develop conditions like heart disease later in life.” So says Dr. Grant Tomkinson, Ph.D., lead author of a study presented at the American Heart Association’s 2013 Scientific Session and senior lecturer in the University of South Australia’s School of Health Sciences. 70% of illnesses and disabilities are the result of lifestyle decisions, not genetics. Decisions made early in life have an enormous impact on the trajectory for a healthier adult and senior life.

How healthy are the children in our community?

Unfortunately, according to the study that Dr. Tomkinson presented, children’s cardiovascular fitness is declining not only in the U.S., but worldwide. This study analyzed 50 studies on running fitness, involving 25 million children, ages 9 to 17, from 28 different countries. The studies covered the period from 1964 to 2010 and looked at how far children could run in a set time or how long it took to run a set distance. The study revealed that:

  • In the U.S., children’s cardiovascular endurance fell an average of 6% per decade between 1970 and 2000.
  • Across the world, children’s endurance has fallen about 5% per decade.
  • From a cardiovascular standpoint, children are 15% less fit than their parents. Today’s children run a mile about a minute and a half slower than their counterparts 30 years ago.

Children today are not getting enough physical exercise, which may set them on a path for poor health later in life. Only about one third of U.S. children six years old and older get the recommended 60 minutes of moderately vigorous activity a day. This is consistent with data for Asian American children in California (UCLA CHIS, 2011-2012).

Asian American Children in CA 6-12 Years Old Chart Physically Active for At Least 1 HR/Day, 6-7 Days/Wk


Asian American Children in CA 11-17 Years Old Chart Physically Active for At Least 1 HR/Day, 6-7 Days/Wk


According to Dr. Tomkinson, the decline in fitness seems to be leveling off in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and perhaps in the U.S. Declines continue in China, while fitness in Japan had never had much decline as fitness levels have been fairly consistent there.

Why is the health of the children in our community declining?

According to Tomkinson, declines in cardiovascular endurance performance may be caused by social, behavioral, physical, and physiological factors. “We need to help inspire children and youth to develop fitness habits that will keep them healthy now and into the future.”

What can I do as a parent to encourage my child (children) to become more physically active?

The first step in improving children’s fitness is to ask, “AM I A GOOD ROLE MODEL?” The best way to assure that your child is getting the physical activity he/she needs to be healthy and happy is for parents, grandparents, and family members to be good examples. According to the World Health Organization (2010), adults 18–64 years old should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week, or do at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week. (Examples of moderate physical activities include bicycling, dancing, swimming and gardening. Examples of vigorous physical activities include aerobics, running, soccer, fast bicycling, or fast swimming.)

For additional tips for parents to help children engage in regular physical activity and make healthier food choices, see “This New Year, Be a Good Role Model and Help the Whole Family Eat Right and Get Active,” from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Tips include:

  • Focus on overall health, not weight alone. Plan meals with your children, from choosing menus and grocery shopping to preparing ingredients, cooking and serving.
  • Eat breakfast everyday and enjoy family dinners together as often as possible.
  • Serve balanced meals. Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, focus on lean proteins and choose whole grains.
  • Get physical. Take a family walk, go on a bike ride, weather permitting, or hit the gym. Parents should get at least two and a half hours of exercise a week and children about 60 minutes a day.
  • Take small steps when changing your lifestyle, say the experts. They’re much easier to stick with over time.

Where can I get more information?

American Heart Association

World Health Organization


American Heart Association (2013). Children’s Cardiovascular Fitness Declining Worldwide. Retrieved from

World Health Organization (2010). Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health. Retrieved from