Admit it, all you parents and grandparents of school-age kids – back in your day, you didn’t walk uphill, in the snow, to and from school each day. You mean it in jest, I know, and your kids certainly aren’t buying it, but your underlying message remains clear:

Back in your day, kids had greater endurance and were simply more physically fit.

Healthy Kids - Healthy YouThis is one of the more common “glory days” assumptions of older generations, and it’s one that’s proven to have trans-generational staying power. Why? Perhaps because it has a factual basis, according to a recent study from the University of South Australia.

Using running speed as a simple proxy for aerobic fitness, researchers conducting the study analyzed data on youths in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. They concluded that children around the world are less aerobically fit than their parents were as kids, a decline they say which began in the 1970s.

Now before you gloat, elders, consider the real-world consequences of such a decline. According to Grand Tomkinson, the exercise physiologist who led the study, such a decline in cardiovascular fitness levels can be setting our children up for serious health problems once they’ve grown.

“If a young person is generally unfit now, then they are more likely to develop conditions like heart disease later in life,” Tomkinson said in a presentation to the American Heart Association last fall, when he also reported that kids today are roughly 15 percent less fit from a cardiovascular standpoint than their parents were as youths. To put it in more illustrative terms, today’s kids run a mile an average of a minute and a half slower than kids just 30 years ago.

This insight can be sobering for parents, but it can also be empowering given the influence parents can have in reversing declining trends and creating good exercise habits in their children. Your kids, after all, are watching you – they’re living and learning habits from you that can vastly affect their future health – so setting a positive example is paramount.

“It’s hard for parents to change their behaviors, but not only is this important for you and your own health; it is also important for your children because you are a role model for them,” said Marissa Stroo, the co-investigator of a study by Duke Medicine on the effects of parental influence on children’s health.

The Duke study found that kids whose mothers encourage them to exercise and eat well, and model the healthy behaviors themselves, are more likely to be active and healthy eaters.

“This might be common sense, but now we have some evidence to support this,” Stroo said.

Ditto on a study by the University of Illinois, which declares that one of the most significant risk factors for childhood obesity among preschoolers is having a mom or dad who’s obese.

“If you, as an adult, live in a food environment that allows you to maintain an elevated weight, remember that your child lives in that environment, too,” said University of Illinois sciences graduate student Dipti A. Dev. “Similarly, if you are a sedentary adult, you may be passing on a preference for television watching and computer games instead of playing chasing games with your preschooler or playing in the park.”

Even family dining rituals passed from parents to children, according to a report by a Cornell behavioral economist, can affect child health and obesity levels positively or negatively. Families that eat together without the television on and remain seated until everyone’s finished, according to the report, having children with lower weights and BMI’s.

“We need to help to inspire children and youth to develop fitness habits that will keep them healthy now and into the future,” Tomkinson said. “They need to choose a range of physical activities they like or they might like to try, and they need to get moving.”

It doesn’t have to be organized or elaborate. Doing simple exercises together as a family can having a lasting effect on your kids, said Tala Fakhouri, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You can take a long walk after dinner,” she said. “You can take your dog for a long walk. Play basketball, dance together.”

The bottom line, Fakhouri says, is that physically active parents make for physically active kids, and these kids grow to become physically active adults – a cycle of good health that can become contagious throughout generations.

If you’re concerned about how your own habits and health deficiencies may be affecting the long-term habits of your children, contact your personal physician to schedule a health physical and to discuss your concerns. Also consider contacting your local dietician to discuss eating habits and a physical therapist to establish a workout regimen catered to your goals and lifestyle.

For general information about child health, obesity, fitness and nutrition, visit www.letsmove.gov.

Resources

NPR Health: Kids Are Less Fit Today Than You Were Back Then

Medical News Today: Healthy Living Learned by Example

Medical News Today: Three Risk Factors Most Highly Correlated with Child Obesity

Medical News Today: Family Dining Rituals Help Keep Child Obesity and Adult BMI Down

American Heart Association: Children’s Cardiovascular Fitness Declining Worldwide

NPR Health: Adult Obesity May Have Origins Way Back in Kindergarten

NPR Health: Most Teens Aren’t Active Enough, and It’s Not Always Their Fault