The percent of children aged six to 12 who were physically active three or more times a week had its biggest drop in five years and is now under 25 percent, new data show.
Making matters worse, households with incomes under $50,000 have much higher rates of inactivity than families making more than $75,000 annually, an analysis by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association and PHIT America found. In fact, low income Americans are getting more inactive while high income Americans are becoming more active.
The level of inactivity increased from about 33 percent in 2012 to nearly 37 percent in 2016 for families making less than $50,000 per year. Meanwhile, inactivity levels for those earning more than $75,000 dropped from 22 percent to nearly 19 percent.
“This is very concerning at several levels [with] long term implications for societal costs, including health care, but in my view it’s basically a moral issue,” says Tom Cove, CEO of the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. “There is no reason lower income people in America should be more inactive than others.”
Jim Baugh, a former president of Wilson Sporting Goods and founder of the non profit PHIT America, analyzes the Physical Activity Council’s data every year to glean the trends beyond team sports. The increase in inactivity among young people is what he calls the “healthcare time bomb.”
Children who have physical education (PE) in school are two to three times more likely to be active outside of school, Baugh found.
“PE is the grassroots program for all activity in America,” Baugh says. “It’s the real solution to the healthcare crisis.”
Former National Football League players Herschel Walker and Roman Oben were doing their part recently on Capitol Hill to lobby for legislation that would give adults and children a financial incentive to be more active. The Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) Act would allow the use of “Pre-Tax Medical Accounts” to pay for physical activity expenses for adults or children.
Walker, 55, won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player in 1982 and was a member of the 1992 Winter Olympics two-man bobsled team. Oben, 44, played offensive tackle 11 seasons for four NFL teams, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won Super Bowl XXXVII.
Walker is now a business owner, whose holding include chicken processing plants. Oben is the NFL’s Director of Youth and High School Football. They agreed to answer questions about diet and fitness, especially for young people.
Q: When should young people start trying to get healthy?
Walker: I started in high school doing 750 pushups and 2,000 sit-ups a day. I didn’t bother with the weights. I still don’t. So I’d say start as early as you can.
Oben: Playing football [in high school and college], you go through training from an early age. You don’t go through all that hard work to make poor health decisions later in life. So health decisions are a habit you get into. Good habits are important.
Q: How do you stay fit?
Walker: I expect this is different from what you will normally hear, but this is me: I eat one full meal a day, usually just at dinner time. I may have some soup, salad and bread, and that just works for me, along with my pushups and sit-ups. I’ve been doing this for a long time and no complaints.
Oben: I played (in the NFL) at about 305 pounds. I am about 6’4”. I try to watch what I eat, and if there’s something I want that I know may not be good I look for a healthy substitute. And I try to ride the exercise bike for about half an hour each day. That burns calories and helps the heart rate. But it’s tough. I’m at about 280 now. I’m trying to get down to my “prom weight.”
Q: How should a young person choose the best approach?
Walker: You have to find what’s best and works for you. Everybody, and every body, is different. So you may have to experiment. For instance, I’m always interested in finding alternatives to red meat. You can really do a lot with chicken, if you don’t get stuck on having it one way, like fried, all the time. There are plenty of alternatives to candy, like fruit. So always keep your eyes open for healthy options.
Oben: You’d be surprised what you can do in everyday life that will help you stay active and get fitter or stay fit. You can walk to the store instead of driving. Bike for a longer distance instead of a car. If you see a game of pickup basketball, you can jump in. It may surprise the younger players, but they’re gonna say, ‘Oh, okay, man, go ahead.’
Q: Any tips that might surprise high school students looking to get fit or stay in shape?
Walker: Sleep is very important and often overlooked. It keeps me sharp.
Oben: Eight hours of sleep a night is my goal. I find that that keeps my mind clear throughout the day, helps me focus, get done what needs doing. It may take some discipline, especially when you are young. But here’s a tip: turn your phone off! Give your mind a break.
Q: How should young people reach and maintain their best weight?
Walker: The best resources for high school students are everywhere. Doing anything other than sitting around is better for your body. I know sometimes it may be hard to find healthy food choices for a reasonable price, but getting some exercise like playing a sport with your friends will help you get to the weight you want.
Oben: I say the best resource is their schools. They are in schools most of the day and some students get two of their meals there, so trying to (get) their schools to have healthier food options to eat and trying to get physical education back in the high school setting will help them maintain and reach the weight they want.
Mitchell is a fellow with the Urban Health Media Project, which O’Donnell co-founded.
Jayne O’Donnell and Joshua Mitchell, USA TODAY