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by Jennifer Woodford


   As obesity rates rise among children and teens, it will take more than an apple a day to improve the health and well-being of today’s young people. Some experts suggest that an hour of outdoor time and more physical activity each day (along with those apples, and other healthy foods) may be the solution.

   Increasing physical activity helps control weight, builds muscle and prevents bones loss. People who exercise regularly have increased energy, manage stress better, and are generally happier. Over a lifetime, exercise may reduce heart disease and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Recent research has also shown that exercise can even lessen the risk of some types of cancer.

   Of course, wellness involves more than just physical health. Researchers have made a case for outdoor activity over indoor exercise as they link other health benefits to children’s interaction with nature. Cornell University researcher Nancy M. Wells showed that nature reduces stress in children and improves their cognitive abilities. Interaction with nature has also been proven to lessen the symptoms of attention deficit disorder.

   Other studies and reports emphasize that exploring nature improves a child’s overall social and emotional development because it encourages imaginative play while raising heart rates and burning calories. When people enjoy time outdoors with family and friends, stronger bonds result.

   Children don’t need to enroll in league sports or calisthenics to get exercise. As they explore the outdoors, play games, climb trees, build forts or tend to their own small gardens, they are walking, running, bending and stretching.

    Unfortunately, one-third of today’s youth are not physically active. With at least 16 percent of children and adolescents overweight, childhood diagnoses of adult illnesses such as Type II diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure are on the rise. Children are also experiencing more digestive problems, asthma, and emotional and behavioral disorders.

   Statistics and research studies don’t mean much to kids who are intent on watching TV after a long day at school, so convincing them to play outside instead can be a challenge. Start by taking small steps — right out the door. Go for a walk, play a game of catch, pull weeds from your flower beds. Do whatever feels right.

   Although the current outlook for children’s health and well-being may be bleak, this negative trend can be reversed. But apples alone won’t do the trick. Outdoor play and exercise are essential so children and their parents can exchange visits to the doctor’s office for healthier, happier lives. 

Don’t go it alone
   National programs such as Green Hour and Small Step can help you and your children get moving and have fun at the same time.

—National Wildlife Federation’s Green Hour program promotes an hour a day of unstructured play outdoors for children aged 5 to 13. The Green Hour website, www.greenhour.org, offers creative ideas for outdoor exploration that combine experiences in nature with the natural exercise that comes from being outside. 

SmallStep.gov, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, focuses on the facts about good health, eating right and exercising, and provides online tools like an activity tracker.

JENNIFER WOODFORD works with Dehavilland Associates, an educational consulting firm.


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