Childhood obesity is an American epidemic, and we all have a role to play in reversing this unhealthy trend. With all the brainpower and expense we spend on the problem, it’s nice to find one solution as close as the nearest patch of grass.
Experts recommend that kids exercise for about an hour a day. This can be a real struggle, though, as recess times are cut, hectic schedules make it hard to go out and play at home, and safety concerns about traffic and crime keep kids indoors.1 Even kids involved in organized sports may spend only a fraction of their practice time actually moving. For many of us, our question about fitness has shifted from “What is the gold standard of exercise for my child?” to “How do we get the most benefit from the limited time we have?”
Short bursts of maximum effort
In fitness circles, researchers and coaches talk about high intensity interval training, or HIIT. The technique alternates periods of maximum effort with periods of rest, compressed into a relatively short workout time. The particular exercise and recovery intervals depend on specific athletic goals, but the basic idea is the same: push hard, ease up, repeat. Besides improving speed and form, interval training helps athletes improve fitness and decrease body fat. Cyclists, runners, soccer players, swimmers and boot-campers all employ this workout strategy in one form or another.
Runners take part in fartlek training, which sounds like a term my 6-year-old son made up but is actually Swedish for speed play. There are countless ways to combine speed and play, and kids are naturals at it. Research has shown that preschools with less fixed playground equipment and more access to balls and tricycles have more active students.2 Tag is possibly the simplest of all recess games, but it offers many of the same benefits of elite athletic speed work. A common group running workout involves jogging single file in a long line. The last person in the line has to sprint up to the front and then set the pace. Repeat. Alternatively, two people on a field or basketball court can partner run laps. One person runs, and the other walks or jogs in the same direction. When the fast person catches up to the slow person, they switch roles. Without a running partner, teens can have fun with apps like “Zombies, Run!” Run fast or get caught by the zombies.
15 minutes can make a difference
Recent studies have shown that high intensity interval training improves health, fitness and body composition in overweight children at least as much as endurance workouts.3 4 5 So, if you only have 15 or 20 minutes outside, don’t give up – make it count! It will be worth the (maximum) effort.
Dr. Suzanne Condron is a board-certified pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic – Fort Bend Medical and Diagnostic Center whose clinical interests include obesity, nutrition, allergies, asthma, childhood development, literacy, infectious diseases and preventive medicine.
1 AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness and Council on School Health. Active healthy living: prevention of childhood obesity through increased physical activity. Pediatrics 2006;112;1834.
2 Dowda M, Brown WH, McIver KL, et al. Policies and Characteristics of the Preschool Environment and physical activity of young children. Pediatrics 2009; 123; e261.
3LauPW, Wong del P, Ngo JK et al. Effects of high-intensity intermittent running exercise in overweight children. Eur J Sport Sci. 2015 Mar;15(2):182-90. Epub 2014 Jul 11.
4 Corte de Araujo AC, Roschel H, Picanco AR et al. Similar health benefits of endurance and high-intensity interval training in obese children. PLoS One. 2012; 7(8):e42747. Epub 2012 Aug 6.
5 Buchan DS, Ollis S, Young JD, et al. High intensity interval running enhances measures of physical fitness but not metabolic measures of cardiovascular disease risk in healthy adolescents. BMC Public Health. 2013; 13; 498.