Nearly 85 percent of parents in Western New York believe their children should regularly be involved in sports, yet only 16 percent of school-aged kids in the region get the hour of daily physical activity recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The disparity is among the more striking findings in a "State of Play" report issued this summer by the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program for the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation and Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.
The report underlines what many parents already know: The nature of organized youth sports has changed, and fewer kids these days are outside running, biking or playing pick-up games than children did a generation or two ago.
"I think a lot of it has to do with screen time. Kids don't know how to play anymore," said Stacy Ribbeck, chair of the Physical Education Department in the Depew Union Free School District.
Fitness benchmarks are easier to hit during summer, when the weather generally cooperates, activities abound and structured days tend to be the exception, not the rule.
The school year differs. In the coming weeks, schedules will fill. Educational demands will grow. The weather will become less predictable.
Still, the importance of physical fitness will remain – as will its benefits.
"Getting kids to move helps prevent or delay chronic disease," said Carol DeNysschen, professor and chair of the Department of Health, Nutrition and Dietetics at SUNY Buffalo State. "Their ability to focus and concentrate goes up and it helps increase learning. It helps their overall balance and mental acuity, which helps them better handle stress."
Active kids also benefit communities. If one in four youths in Western New York – just 25 percent – met the daily CDC fitness recommendations, and stayed active into adulthood, it would mean that 7,500 fewer of them would become overweight or obese, according to the Aspen Institute. It would shrink direct medical costs by $127 million, spare $135 million in productivity losses and salvage 10,015 years of life.
[MORE BACK TO SCHOOL STORIES: Read stories to help you start a morning workout routine and streamline school year meal planning Saturday in the print edition of WNY Refresh in The Buffalo News]
Ribbeck and DeNysschen said they understand the struggle parents face when it comes to helping their children – and themselves – regularly include exercise in their routines, especially during the school year.
"It's a time crunch," Ribbeck said, "but you've got to do it."
WHAT PARENTS (AND KIDS) CAN DO
"Engaging parents in the effort is the biggest key in getting kids to become more physically active," DeNysschen said. "Kids love it when their parents do something with them, whether it's shooting hoops or going for a walk, playing kickball, basketball, catch."
DeNysschen is encouraged when she sees parents and school-aged children wearing fitness trackers. The devices can help family members set up challenges to take more daily steps or tackle more flights of stairs. Other ideas include:
Take a family walk or bike ride: "Our neighborhood knows we're always out on our bikes," DeNysschen said of herself, her husband, Martin, and their daughters, Ashley, 13, and Jenna, 11. They take quiet side streets to Green Lake near their Orchard Park home. The family also will pile into the car with their windhound, named Dash, and Missy, their toy poodle, and head to Chestnut Ridge Park for a run. "The dogs are 10 years old," DeNysschen said, "but they don't act that way."
Enroll the kids in an organized activity or sport: Organized sports take place in schools, municipal recreation programs and beyond, including gymnastics, dance, running, biking and more. The Depew district, using a federal grant this summer, created a four-week day camp that focused on "lifetime activities" including tennis, swimming, Can Jam, cup stacking and Four Square, the latter of which is kind of like volleyball without a net.
Plan a weekly family activity day: Set aside one day each week to do something active as a family. The DeNysschens like to swim during summer, hike, bike and run when the weather allows, and snowshoe in the winter.
Sneak activity into your daily routine: This goes for you and your kids. "It can be something as simple as taking the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator, turning TV commercials into fitness breaks or parking a little farther from your destination to get in those extra steps," Ribbeck said.
Participate in a family fun run or walk: Hundreds are offered year round in the region. They are a great way to combine family time with healthy activity. The DeNysschens have signed up to run the Holly Jolly 5K on Dec. 2 in Orchard Park.
The 5K Chicken Wing Run takes place Sunday downtown and the Hospice Dash 5K Sept. 16 in Niagara County. Find more races at buffalorunners.com.
Make fitness fun: Families can buy playing card decks that list simple physical activity requirements on them, DeNysschen said. For instance, the 3 of spades will ask someone to do three pushups; draw a 9 of hearts and you will have you do 9 jumping jacks. "Nighttime, when it's time to put on a movie, why not stop every half hour and do a little physical activity: pushups, triceps lifts. Just make it fun instead of just sitting all the time," DeNysschen said. You also can turn chores into family games. "Race to see how fast you can get the house cleaned or rake the leaves in the yard," Ribbeck said, "and then try to beat your time next week."
Start somewhere: "Get up 15 minutes earlier, and somewhere during the day you have that time to exercise," DeNysschen said. "If it's in the morning, great; after dinner, clean up the kitchen and go for a walk…Over time, let that time grow."
Set an example: "I know a lot of kids have sports but I always tell people, 'If your kids have a practice, drop them off and go for a walk or a run,'" DeNysschen said. "Do something while they're practicing nearby and you're right there to pick them up."
"I'll be honest. How many parents really need to get moving at the same time?"
WHAT TEACHERS (AND STAFF) CAN DO
"When you have teachers who are giving students the opportunity or the nudges to stay active, that's huge," DeNysschen said.
Send the right signals: Signs and posters stationed in hallways and classrooms that show the proper way to do wall squats or wall pushups can help students engage in exercise while waiting for a class, lunch or the bus.
Incorporate fitness: While preparing for quizzes during class time, teachers can assign students who are able to do a particular exercise when they get a wrong or right answer, including a few jumping jacks or lunges. Last school year, Jenna DeNysschen had a teacher who included 15 minutes of physical activity during the middle of homework assignments. Students had to write down what they did. "She loved that," her mother said, "and when she brought it home, I made sure we did something together." Websites including gonoodle.com and fueluptoplay60.com, can provide other ideas to answer the teacher question, 'How can I get my students out of their seats but still learning?'" DeNysschen said.
Encourage intramural sports: "Noncompetitive team sports provide a safe outlet for a student who isn’t physically coordinated, isn’t physically in shape or let’s face it, isn’t so excited about competitive sports," DeNysschen said. "Keeps kids engaged in a fun way."
Join a wellness committee: Teachers, staff and parents make up these committees. Most schools have them.
Be mindful of age groups: Elementary school students like to jump, throw, kick and catch but can struggle to combine these exercises. Try them individually, a bit at a time, DeNysshchen recommended. Middle school – ages 9 to 12 – is the time teach kids that physical activity can remain fun. "They can be competitive," she said, "but teach them how to lose gracefully or deal with setbacks or weaker teammates. Very few are Olympians at this age so keep the sport focus in its place – as healthy, a stress reliever and a social outlet."
FAMILY ACTIVITY RESOURCES AT THE BUFFALO & ERIE COUNTY LIBRARIES
“365 Activities for Fitness, Food, and Fun for the Whole Family: Super sports, great games, exciting experiments, and nutrition nuggets,” Julia E. Sweet
“The Amazing Fitness Adventure for Your Kids,” Phil Parham
“The Art of Roughhousing: Good old-fashioned horseplay and why every kid needs it,” Anthony T. DeBenedet
“Keeping Kids Fit: A family plan for raising active, healthy children,” Len Saunders
“Sneaky Fitness: Fun, foolproof ways to slip fitness into your child’s everyday life; with 50 all new sneaky recipes!,” Missy Chase Lapine
“Strong Kids, Healthy Kids: The revolutionary program for increasing your child’s fitness in 30 minutes a week,” Fredrick Hahn