As I approach my final semester as a public school teacher, I can't help but reflect on the state of fitness among today's adolescents. It is no big secret that childhood obesity rates are soaring. By some accounts, today's generation of school-age children will be the first in U.S. history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Children have developed the outstanding "eye-thumb" coordination necessary for texting, video game play and piloting remote control helicopters. But far too many children have not developed the necessary strength and fitness needed to live an active and healthy life.
As a high school coach I see kids who are motivated to run (or at least motivated to be part of a running team). As a high school physical education teacher I see too many kids who are unable to perform any type of cardiovascular exercise for longer than six minutes without becoming exhausted. As a coach I see kids who love to play video games as much as they love being active outdoors. As a teacher I see far too many kids who just love to play video games. Yet these same students, when presented with the opportunity to try a new physical activity, will often discover that being active is fun and exciting. The problem is getting past the hurdle that prevents them from trying.
Mark Twain has long been credited with saying "when I get the urge to exercise I lie down until it goes away." In actuality this quote comes from Paul Terry, appropriately the creator of the Terrytoons cartoons that so many children watched from the couch while glued to the television.
So it still is with many of today's children. It's not that they don't know how to play; it's that they don't know how to be active and don't want to learn. Playing on a game console is one thing. Play that requires movement, sweat and an elevated heart rate is another thing all together.
To the point of exhilaration
Chances are you have experienced a really tough run or race. It's uncomfortable, even painful. All you can think of is how nice it would be to stop and sit down. As runners, we have learned to muddle through; to tough out the bad runs. We know how great it feels to run free and easy when our body is working like a well-tuned machine. You finish the run exhilarated and anxious for more.
Getting to that point of exhilaration requires practice, however. If you are never exposed to the joys of physical play, you will never get past the point of that uncomfortable, painful run. Therein lays the rub. If being active is always uncomfortable, why would anyone want to do it?
Our sons are grown (30 and 27 years of age). They run, hike, surf, rock climb, play ultimate Frisbee, cycle, swim, ski and who knows what else. They also have demanding professional careers that consume many hours every week. I don't worry that they will stop being active. The boys have been active for their entire lives.
When they were little, the boys were not forbidden from watching TV or playing video games. My wife and I just made sure to incorporate active play into every week. We planned trips to state parks on the weekends. If I was going to a race, I inquired whether there was a kids' run at the event. When finances made it feasible, vacations were spent hiking, biking and running in national or state parks. It might have been easier to go to a resort, but who wants to sit around when there are so many great places to explore? Exposing our children to an active lifestyle was not about turning them into great athletes. It was all about helping them develop an appreciation of the outdoors and learning what they could accomplish with their bodies.
Getting kids active early
As a teacher I struggle with how to help school children learn to love being fit and active. I worry when I see 16 year olds without the necessary core strength to support themselves for more that 10 seconds. I am concerned when students are unable to swim (or unwilling to swim because it means getting their hair wet). The adolescent who can not maintain consistent cardiovascular exercise for more than a few minutes is setting themselves up for a lifetime of poor physical health. I tell students in my Outdoor class that if they can find one new activity that they enjoy and want to pursue outside of school requirements, then the class will have been a success. Some succeed, some not so much.
The responsibility for getting kids active lies with each of us as teachers, parents, neighbors, mentors and friends. There are so many ways to get involved. If you have kids get them out the door and go with them. Your position as a role model can not be overemphasized. Use your role as a runner to start a running experience for kids in your neighborhood or town.
Years ago I organized a weekly summer fun run of three to five miles mainly for adults. We ran the same course each week and provided water and watermelon at the finish. I included a half mile run for kids. Each child got a ribbon and all the watermelon they could eat. Some weeks we had 30 adults and three kids. Other weeks we had 30 kids and five adults. It was a weekly success regardless of turnout. My main cost, besides the price of a watermelon, was the 60 minutes a week to put on and clean up after the event.
I know a family of runners who organize pond hockey and ice skating in a neighborhood park. Children of all ages and sizes are out on the ice playing, falling and having a great time. The Madison Nordic Ski Club has a vibrant kid ski program run entirely by volunteers (some come with their own kids and others who have grown up). The children learn to ski, play games, drink hot chocolate and otherwise regale themselves in winter. The video games might exist for some, but they can wait until after the outdoor fun.
As runners I feel we owe it to the next generation to pay it forward. Part of our responsibility is to ensure that 20 years from now there will still be people (runners) like us. Races come and go, but the joy that comes from a rainy run in the woods needs to be experienced by as many people as we can get out the door. What can you do for the next generation of runners? The only limitations are your energy and creativity.
Good running to you - and your kids!
Tom Kaufman, of Madison, Wisconsin, has run more than 40 marathons in as many years of running. He teaches high school phys ed and coaches high school track and cross country, as well as community and masters athletes. He has a master's degree in physical education and a specialization in exercise physiology.