More Than Half Of U.S. Children Lack Proper Heart, Lung Fitness: AHA Study

DALLAS – Despite all the advances in medicine and exercising, today’s children are not as healthy as previous generations. A new study by the American Heart Association (AHA) not only backs up that claim, but reveals a shocking number of kids are in poor health. Researchers say nearly 60 percent of children in the U.S. don’t have healthy cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF). This puts them at significant risk for serious health conditions like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

CRF is a key indicator of fitness and health. It refers to the body’s ability to transport oxygen to muscles during sustained physical activity. Children with healthy CRF have better health as adults and live longer than those with unhealthy CRF.

According to the report, higher CRF also results in better academic performance, cognitive skills, mental health, life satisfaction, and a higher sense of self-worth.

Kids aren’t getting outside enough these days

Unfortunately, AHA researchers say studies find CRF among children is declining around the world over the last two decades. Unsurprisingly, one of the greatest contributors to low CRF in children is inadequate physical activity. Today’s kids play fewer physically challenging games and exercise less. The decline in physical activity and exercise also shows a link to greater use of electronic devices.

According to the AHA statement, CRF can be improved in children through high-intensity interval training (repeated bouts of vigorous physical activity), such as running sprints. Sports are also an excellent way for kids to improve CRF. Basketball, soccer, tennis, and swimming are all good options.

“Cardiorespiratory fitness is crucial for good heart and overall health both in childhood and as children become adults,” says the study’s chair Geetha Raghuveer in an AHA statement. “We’ve got to get kids moving and engaged in regular physical activity, such as in any sports they enjoy… The habits they learn when they’re young will directly benefit their health as they become adults.”

Raghveer also serves as a cardiologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital and professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri.

Where you live may affect your physical fitness level

While regular physical activity can improve CRF, there are other factors that impact heart and lung fitness in children. Socioeconomic status and neighborhood environment may also play a role.

In particular, researchers say children from lower income families tend to have lower CRF. This may be due to a lack of access to safe places for physical activity or physical education in schools. Many low income families also live in areas that have poor access to healthy foods.

How can parents know if their children have good CRF?

According to the AHA statement, CRF testing in children is beneficial. However, CRF testing is not routinely conducted. The most accurate fitness tests involve having a participant exercise on a treadmill or exercise bike to exhaustion. Other tests include:

  • The PWC170 test (Physical Work Capacity Corresponding to a Heart Rate of 170 beats per minute) conducted on an exercise bike
  • A test which measures how far a participant can walk in six minutes (this test is only useful for children who are already at risk for low CRF)
  • Step tests which require a participant to step on and off a bench that is 12 inches high (this test can be particularly useful in areas with limited space)

While those tests are viable options for doctors, most physicians don’t perform them because of limitations in time, space, and personnel. The study finds a good alternative to testing in doctor’s offices is testing in schools. Many schools already have children do the 20-meter shuttle run, which is an effective measure of CRF.

“Our hope is that this statement will also inspire research into finding valid, lower-cost alternative options for traditional cardiopulmonary exercise testing to assess CRF in all children, and improved CRF tests that can be done in an office with limited space and without the need for formally trained exercise physiology personnel,” Raghveer adds.

“In the meantime, requiring physical activity for every grade level through high school would be a step in the right direction.”

The findings are published in the AHA journal Circulation.

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