The Fit-Fat Hypothesis – Article By Maxine Freedman-Thompson
All too often, we mistakenly believe that if children are not fat, they are healthy. Our current fixation with obesity, which is easy to see, has eclipsed the problem of ‘unfitness’, a condition that is not visually identifiable. It is, however, better to be fat and fit than thin and unfit.
A recent study of 300 ten-year-old children, from an affluent town, has revealed significant deterioration in fitness and strength over the past decade, highlighting a false sense of security that many middle-class parents have about their children’s health. Results from the study showed participants:
- Achieved 27% fewer sit-ups than their predecessors
- Had 26% less strength in their arms
- Displayed noticeably weaker grip strength
It is widely believed that children are taking far less exercise than the recommended 60 minutes a day (some experts believe 90 minutes a day is required for cardiovascular gains). Yet only one child in eight, aged eight to 15 is fitting in the 60-minute minimum and a third only manage 60 minutes a week.
The desire for better academic grades have over-shadowed benefits of physical activity, such as:
- Better metabolic health in later life
- Lowers blood pressure and cholesterol
- Reduces the risks of developing diabetes and cardiovascular diseases
- Improves bone density, thus lowering the chances of developing osteoporosis
The irony is, that physical activity in children results in greater self-esteem, academic achievements and improved behaviour!
In a Canadian study, children undertaking more PE lessons received better reports and test results in academic subjects than their peers, even though they had 13% less teaching time. An Australian study of nearly 8,000 children aged seven to 15 reported that high academic achievers were also those that could sprint faster, do more sit-ups and jump further.
The reason for these differences is still being debated. One theory is that fitter children have higher levels of the neurochemical serotonin, which has a calming effect and therefore allows them to study better. Others believe the greater sense of self-esteem provides the confidence to study harder and master new skills.
The seeds of bad health are sown in childhood and it is not yet know whether you can make up for lost time when an adult. The link between children’s fitness and their wider achievements need to be recognised. Not just in places where activity in children has a far greater emphasis put on it, such as Australia but here in the UK, where parents are almost encouraged to take the view that if their child isn’t obese then there’s nothing to worry about.
Take a look at the Children’s Fitness Toolbox to see how you can make a difference.
Acta Paediatrica Dr G Sandercock, senior lecturer in clinical exercise physiology at the University of Essex
Dr M Ward-Platt, consultant paediatrician at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle Upon Tyne
British Heart Foundation