Some of the most important factors that influence children’s and adolescents’ health include cardio-respiratory fitness, muscular fitness, physical activity and exercise.
Research indicates that children’s health and fitness levels have an impact on their health in adulthood. Other research shows that heart disease has its origin in childhood, thereby highlighting the importance of exercise and a balanced diet together with a healthy lifestyle from an early age.
Cardio-respiratory fitness refers to the function of the heart and lungs, and indicates their capacity to supply oxygen to the working muscles efficiently. On the other hand, muscular fitness reflects muscular power and flexibility. These two important aspects of fitness are affected by exercise and daily physical activity. They can be tested by using specific tests and calculations adopted for children.
Unfortunately, most children and adolescents are not being as active as they should. More than 80 per cent of Maltese adolescents are not reaching the minimum level of daily physical activity recommended by the World Health Organisation. This is not only increasing the risk of having health problems in childhood, but also resulting in a high health risk these children will be facing when they reach adulthood – such as low fitness levels (cardio-respiratory and muscular), obesity, diabetes, heart disease, fragile bones and a higher risk or mortality at a younger age.
More than 80 per cent of Maltese adolescents are not reaching the minimum level of daily physical activity recommended by the World Health Organisation
These risks can be prevented by following the recommended levels of physical activity. Children aged three to five should spend at least three hours a day playing actively at low, moderate and high intensity.
Children and adolescents aged five to 18 should spend at least one hour of moderate to high-intensity physical activity every day. They should also participate in high-impact (jumping) and muscle-strengthening activities three times a week. The minimum of one-hour activities can be split in short bouts of 10-minute activities spread throughout the day; if more than an hour of activity is performed, this is of additional benefit. All children should avoid being sedentary for long periods of time.
Moderate and high-intensity activities are more beneficial than those of low intensity. Therefore, one should observe the intensity of activities children are engaging in. A simple way to monitor the intensity is by observing whether they can sing or talk while participating in the activity.
If the children are able to sing while moving, this indicates that the activity is of low intensity; if they are able to talk but not sing (for example, while riding a bike), this shows that the activity is of moderate intensity; and, finally, if they are short of breath and not able to talk while moving (such as while running), this indicates that the activity is of high intensity.
High-intensity physical activity leads to better cardio-respiratory and muscular fitness levels. As already mentioned, these are important as they influence future health and help prevent heart disease which can start to develop in childhood. Apart from strengthening muscles, high-impact activities also strengthen bones, reducing the incidence of fragile bones and reducing the risk of fractures both in childhood and later on in adulthood.
Physical activity is also beneficial to mental health, where it was found that symptoms of depression were reduced. It is also beneficial from a cognitive aspect where it was observed that children who were regularly physically active performed better academically.
It is, therefore, of utmost importance that children are encouraged to always be physically active, while reducing time spent sedentary in front of the TV, computer or phone. The net result is that our children today will grow into a healthier, happier adult population tomorrow.
Claire Falzon is a psysiotherapist and an awardee of a Malta Sport Scholarship, funded by the government. She has read for an MSc in Paediatric Exercise and Health.
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