Expert Opinion

Children now slower runners than their parents

This week a new study revealed that many children cannot run as fast as their parents could when they were young. Professor Jim McKenna, Head of Active Lifestyles Research at Leeds Met, shares his thoughts on the news.

Few people who follow childhood behaviour are surprised at yesterday’s news. That news highlights worldwide evidence confirming that it now takes the average child 90 seconds longer to run a mile than it took their counterparts 30 years ago.

Anxieties about losing physical fitness have long been a societal concern. Typically these have been driven by concerns about the physical readiness of young conscripts for military service. Since the 1950s the concerns shifted to impaired employee performance alongside rising rates of disease. Now we are beginning to see consequences being writ large in every age group. Most can readily understand that years of inactivity will incubate to impair the health and well-being of adults later in life. Yet, it is now time to recognise that these effects are being amplified and worsened in our children; quite simply, the harm they will experience will be the direct result of more years of inactivity. Today’s data suggests that the long-held suspicion - that today’s children may be the first to die younger than their parents – may be more than an idle threat.

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The significance of these generational differences become clear when we think what lower fitness really means. Lack of fitness – better understood as ‘exercise capacity’ – has strong, but reversible, health influences. Low exercise capacity is linked to rising rates of Type Two diabetes, which ironically, used to be known as ‘adult-onset’ diabetes. Beyond impacts on diabetes, the consequences of the avoidable loss of exercise capacity will be borne by the NHS, all of which is paid by tax-payers and all at a time when the NHS budget is facing deep cuts.

In schools the lack of physical ‘stretch’ has profound implications for cognitive function. To my mind, that is a centrepiece of what most schools aim to develop. Work conducted in the ‘Decade of the Brain’ confirms the powerful effect of exercise – and with it exercise capacity - on enhancing brain functioning. Better exercise capacity particularly enhances functioning in the parts of the brain that deal with planning and problem-solving. That plays out in affecting performance just as much in subjects like Mathematics and Science as in creative subjects like English and Drama. If those aren’t pressing enough reasons for parents to lobby for more activities that enhance children’s exercise capacity, it is hard to understand what type of child development they favour.

Image used under creative commons licence courtesy of Adam Kerfoot-Roberts.

Professor James McKenna

Professor of Sport / Carnegie School Of Sport

A professor of Physical Activity and Health, Jim studies behaviour change at a range of levels; individual, social and whole community. He is Director of the Active Lifestyles research centre in the School of Sport.

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