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Published: Wednesday, 7/23/2008

Kids: Get the lead out

THE importance of physical activity among teenagers, encompassing everything from organized sports to physical education and recess in schools, needs to be reinforced by parents and school officials alike.

That's the important message from one of the largest and longest studies ever to examine how quickly physical exertion slackens among young Americans once they hit the teen years. While 90 percent of 9-year-olds average at least a couple of hours of exercise a day, less than 3 percent of 15-year-olds do.

The study, which tracked about 1,000 children at various ages around the country between 2000 and 2006, found that by the time kids reach 15, their physical activity is down to less than an hour daily and only about 30 minutes on weekends.

Significantly, the study indicated that even the most energetic children experience a precipitous decline in activity as they reach puberty. A particularly vulnerable age seems to be 13. The authors, using devices to measure movement, were surprised by the degree of the drop they saw.

The results alarmed the study's lead author, Dr. Philip Nader, a pediatrician and professor emeritus at the University of California at San Diego, who proclaimed that the findings amount to a health crisis that's not being taken seriously by the public.

The danger, of course, is that a sluggish lifestyle can easily be carried into adulthood with all the ensuing health risks - obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

The study, appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, didn't delve into the reasons kids' daily physical activity dropped, but Dr. Nader suspects that naturally active younger children simply find less opportunities to be active as they get older.

Many schools have either curtailed or canceled recess and physical education classes. Sports are mainly reserved for jocks and the rest simply stop playing any game - except maybe the video variety.

A healthier lifestyle needs to be restored among idle teenagers. While schools can help, it wouldn't hurt if physical fitness also became a priority among parents, many of whom still consider exercise a chore to be avoided.

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