While the United States brings in more Olympic gold than any other country, many, if not most, American schoolchildren wouldn’t even bring home a tin can, if there was such a low-ranking medal.
Recently, colleagues and I decided to see how the fitness of American children compared to other countries. Our findings were surprising. Not only did the United States finish at the bottom of the pack, but American children fell behind much smaller, poorer countries like Iceland, Chile and Suriname.
Fitness level is an important indicator of athletic success, but it is also important for your health. You can be fit in different ways: you can be strong like a weightlifter, run fast like a sprinter, be flexible like a gymnast, or be skillful like a tennis player.
However, not all of these types of fitness are related to your health. The most important type of fitness for good health is âaerobicâ fitness, which is your ability to exercise vigorously for a long time, such as running on an oval or riding a bike around the neighborhood.
If you are generally unfit now, you are more likely to develop or die from diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers later in life.
One study, using data from the aerobic center’s longitudinal study that followed more than 53,000 men and women, found that low aerobic capacity was the best predictor of death. It was much higher than any other risk factor – except hypertension in men – and was higher in combined deaths from obesity, smoking, and diabetes.
Recent evidence also shows that your level of fitness as a child is strongly linked to your future health. Two studies, one that followed 1.3 million Swedish 18-year-old boys for 29 years and another that followed 510 Japanese 16-year-old girls for 64 years, found that children with poor physical condition were more likely to die prematurely from any cause later in life.
This highlights the importance of measuring aerobic capacity when trying to understand the health and well-being of children and youth.
Who are the most suitable?
We published a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that compared the aerobic fitness levels of over 1.1 million children aged 9 to 17 from 50 countries who were measured using running in a 20-meter shuttle, also called the “beep” test. We systematically analyzed data from 177 studies around the world.
The beep test is the world’s most popular aerobic fitness field test for children and youth. It is a progressive stress test involving a continuous run between two lines 20 meters (66 feet) apart in time until recorded beeps. The time between beeps gradually gets shorter and the test is over when you can no longer run the distance in time with the beeps.
Our study showed that the fittest children were from Africa and Central and Northern Europe, while the less fit were from South America.
America finished at the back of the pack, ranked 47th out of 50, well behind the fittest Tanzania, Iceland and Estonia and just ahead of the less fit Mexico, Peru and Latvia. The typical 12-year-old American would run about 520 meters (1,706 feet or 26 laps lasting 3.5 minutes) on the shuttle before stopping, falling some 840 meters (2,756 feet or 42 laps) behind the typical 12 year old from Tanzania.
In contrast, our neighbor to the north, Canada, did quite well, placing just above the middle of the field in 19th place.
A separate analysis of these 1.1 million children from 50 countries found that a higher proportion of boys (43-94%) were in “healthy” aerobic fitness – the level of fitness associated with better cardio health. -metabolic – than girls (21 to 91%), the proportion of physically fit children decreasing with age.
What is causing the gap?
The reasons for the poor performance of the United States might surprise you.
We explored the links between aerobic capacity and major socioeconomic and demographic factors in each country, including inequalities in wealth, standard of living, childhood obesity, levels of physical activity and climate.
Wealth inequality – the gap between the rich and the poor as measured by the Gini index – was the strongest correlate in a country’s fitness rankings. In other words, countries with a large gap between rich and poor tended to have low levels of fitness.
This could be because countries with a large gap between rich and poor tend to have large subpopulations of poor individuals. Poverty is linked to poor social and health outcomes – one of which is lower aerobic fitness levels – including lower levels of physical activity, higher levels of fat, shorter life expectancy, lower levels of physical activity, and lower levels of fat. increased risk of cardiovascular and other diseases, impaired growth of children and social disintegration.
This result suggests that initiatives to narrow the gap between rich and poor, such as progressive tax regimes, wage regulation or income redistribution, might be population-appropriate approaches to improve fitness. .
What can you do to improve your aerobic capacity and that of your children?
Having good fitness habits is important, but it’s also fun. Try joining a sports club, go for a regular beach swim with friends, or play basketball at the local playground after school. Inspire each other to keep exercising.
For a real improvement in your aerobic capacity, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends that you do at least 150 minutes per week, and your children at least 60 minutes per day, of moderate to vigorous exercise that uses the large muscles of the body. This includes exercises such as running, cycling or swimming, or playing sports such as basketball, soccer or hockey.
Best of all, an additional 20 minutes of more vigorous âhuff and puffâ exercise will get you on your way to developing the fitness habits that will keep you healthy now and in the future. One method, called interval training, involves exercising as hard as possible for a few minutes, then resting for a few minutes and repeating several times. It is not easy and you will have to get started. Your kids will likely beat you up, and there’s a good chance they’ll take advantage of it!
Also, why not add a bit of low-tech to your high-tech and try ‘nibbling’ on exercise throughout the day until you have the physical shape and confidence to achieve it. recommended goal? Remember to choose a range of activities that you like or think you like to try, and now move towards better health for you and your children as well.