How to Raise a Fit Kid-- Without Sit-Ups

Nearly one-third of American kids are seriously out of shape, but the tests schools currently use to check physical fitness are often outmoded and can miss the mark, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine. (AP Photo/Tom Strickland)

By Sari Harrar

Nearly one-third of American kids are seriously out of shape-- but the tests schools currently use to check physical fitness are often outmoded and can miss the mark, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine.

Having strong and healthy muscles, heart rates and lungs protect kids from major health problems in later years and are linked with brighter mood, better school performance and a bigger hippocampus, a brain region involved with learning and memory. 

Even though American schools have been testing physical fitness in various ways since the 1950s, the IOM’s panel of children’s health experts say some of the most widely-used (and universally disliked) checks actually reveal little and could be dropped by schools. These tests include:

  • The sit-and-reach test: Remember this one? You sit on the floor with legs stretched out in front, then see if you can touch your toes. The IOM says there’s a “lack of evidence for an association between flexibility tests and health outcomes,” and recommends against “including such tests” in national guidelines for fitness checks.
  • Sit-ups: The IOM says there are better ways to check kids’ and teens’ muscle strength, like with hand-grip strength and the standing long jump. 

The panel says a good check for endurance is the 20-meter ‘shuttle run'. Kids do this short run repeatdly in a set period of time, with the number of runs tallied to show their fitness level.

The best check for body fat, the IOM suggests, should include waist measurements and a skin-fold check for fat. Fitness determinations should also be based on a child's age and gender.

Fitness at Home

Is your child fit? Can you improve his or her fitness level? I asked Frances Zappalla, D.O., a pediatric cardiologist at the Nemours Cardiac Center at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., what parents should know and do.

Q: Why does fitness matter?

A: We know that children who are physically fit and active have lower incidence of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression. They sleep better, have higher self-esteem and higher self-confidence.

Q: How can parents ensure our kids are getting fit, and staying that way?

A: Send them outside to play instead of being in front of the TV or computer– run, walk, kick a soccer ball, shoot some hoops, dance, ride bicycles. Helmets are a must for anything with wheels (with the exception of the car). I tell the kids in the office when they are too old to ride the bicycle, scooter, or skate board– that’s when they can stop wearing a helmet. 

Q: How much activity do kids and teens need?

A: The American Heart Association recommends that all children over the age of 2 have at least 60 minutes of moderately strenuous physical activity every day and at least 30 minutes of strenuous activity at least twice a week.  

Q: How can parents get involved, without taking over kids’ playtime?

A: Parents should be outside with their children from an early age being the example. Go for a family walk or bicycle ride (parents wear your helmets). Visit a local park, go hiking, play tag. Kids need to be active. It’s important to find some kind of activity the kids like; it does not have to be a team sport or a competitive sport. It is also important that we do not over schedule our children. They need unstructured playtime as well.

Q: What about encouraging kids to get involved with an activity that can help them stay fit for life -- swimming, tennis, martial arts, dance or a school physical eduation class that focuses on everyday fitness activities?

A: It’s a wonderful idea. Let’s face it – the majority of our boys will not be playing football in college or in the real world. They need to learn lifelong fitness– yoga, swimming, walking, cycling, tennis.