Children and fitness: The future is now

An interview with former world record holder Rob DeCastella of Australia appeared recently in the online edition of Runner's World.

The individual questioning DeCastella made the statement that in the United States obesity among children had tripled since 1990. Does Australia have a similar problem?

DeCastella admitted that Australia was not far behind. Deke stated: "Obesity has tripled in Australia as well in the last 20 years. It's exactly the same issues: affluent lifestyle, electronic entertainment, time-poor parents, single-parent families, obligations -- all those sorts of things are making it more and more difficult."

The Florida Times-Union carried an Associated Press article the next morning headlined, "U.S. Youths lead global obesity." The article's subtitle stated, "Young Americans top those in 14 other countries, survey shows."

The study by Inge Lissau, a researcher at the National Institute of Public Health in Copenhagen, Denmark, suggested that among American 15-year-olds, 15 percent of girls and nearly 14 percent of boys were obese. Thirty-one percent of girls and 28 percent of boys were more modestly overweight.

The heaviest other countries included Greece, Portugal, Israel, Ireland and Denmark.

Fast food, slow kids

One reason given was the prevalence of fast-food restaurants and, I'm going to suggest, that a subreason is that for many teenagers those same fast-food restaurants provide a safe gathering point for boy-girl relationships.

Among those countries studied, Lithuania had the lowest obesity rates. Freshly emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, Lithuania probably has not reached a level of prosperity to promote the growth not only of fast-food restaurants, but the other attributes of affluence more prevalent in First World societies.

Low-carb and low-fat foods probably are less prevalent in the marketplace for the same reason.

Coincidentally -- or maybe not coincidentally -- the same edition of the Times-Union carried a story about Comcast's new cable option, offering "on-demand viewing."

The Internet corporation will soon offer to its digital cable subscribers access to more than 1,200 movies and other cable programs at their own convenience. If you can't find a regularly programmed show you want to view on the hundred or so channels available, a simple "OK" click will allow you to choose anything you want to view, including exercise shows featuring Jane Fonda look-alikes.

Why exercise when it's more fun watching others doing the job?

Ironically, never before has the sport of long-distance running been more popular. Marathons such as Chicago, London, Berlin and New York routinely attract between 30,000 and 40,000 entrants, their fields actually limited to those numbers.

The "Indy Mini," a little-known half-marathon in Indianapolis which had closed entries at 25,000, decided to increase its field by 5,000 more, and sold out that many places in only two days. Runner's World said: "This is one of the most amazing road race stories we've ever heard."

Gap between the fit and fat

Just as there is a growing gap in this and other countries between the rich and the poor, there is an equally growing gap between the fit and the fat, or at least more charitably, the fit and the "unfit."

The year I ran my first marathon, Boston, at the end of the 1950s, there were only 151 starters in that race. As a child I never had participated in organized sports. We played football and baseball on the playground, organizing our own games. No adults involved.

A generation later, at the end of the 1970s, Boston had grown to 5,000 or more runners. This was during the first running boom, created in the wake of Frank Shorter's Olympic victory and Jim Fixx's best-selling The Complete Book of Running. The first running boom featured Baby Boomers interested in their own health and fitness. They were mostly male and very competitive.

At that same time, children's sports had become more organized, more compartmentalized, more structured. Whereas I had played in streets and alleys and on gravel playgrounds, my young children played in organized leagues on well-manicured fields with adults sitting in bleacher seats screaming at them and the referees.

Children in that era played sports like baseball where they stood around a lot, or football where they spent a lot of time sitting on the bench if they were skinny like me.

Fitness can be fun

One generation later, at the end of the 1990s and into the new millennium, we have a second and even bigger running boom fueled by the daughters of the Baby Boomers -- and it is a kinder and gentler boom. Running has never been bigger, nor has it ever before been as enjoyable.

Children's running also is on the rise. A growing minority of running parents and their children have discovered that fitness can be fun. More and more road races have begun to add side events for youngsters.

In Huntsville, Ala., each fall, 1,000 children participate in a program where they run a total of 25 miles in school over a period of several weeks, then cover the final 1.2 miles at The Rocket City Marathon to complete the classic 26.2-mile distance.

The Gate River Run in Jacksonville had 2,600 kids participate in the Adidas Junior River Run, four separate 1-mile races for different age groups in March.

"Increasingly, organizers of road races from 5K to the marathon have begun to add short-distance events for children to their mix of weekend activities," says Linda Honikman of the USATF Road Running Information Center. "They do it to please the running parents -- or because they are running parents themselves."

While participation of junior (19 and under) runners in marathons has diminished in the last two decades from 5 percent to less than 2 percent, participation in 5K races is on the rise for those in that category.

Rise of the soccer (and running) mom

Significantly, when I attend sports played by my grandchildren, those sports are most often soccer and basketball, sports that involve a lot of movement. Other people's children still play stand-around sports like baseball and football, but this very much is the generation of the Soccer Mom -- who often is same as the Mom Who Just Ran Her First Marathon.

I no longer look to spectator sports for role models. They offer too few. My role model is a woman with two kids who has just lost 20 pounds and decided to run a marathon as a means of raising a lot of money for the Leukemia Society, or some other charity.

Every runner, every parent, is a role model for their children and the children of others. And for their friends and relatives. They are the role models for a future generation of runners and soccer players and Soccer Moms.

Because while I certainly am distressed that America leads the world in obesity -- and that Rob DeCastella's country, among others, is not far behind -- I focus my attention on those who already have chosen running as a healthy lifestyle.

In a sense this means that I wind up preaching to the already converted. You know what a positive effect that running has had on your life and lifestyle. And by signifying your commitment to good health, you signify that to your children and your grandchildren as well.

The future, indeed, is now.

Copyright 2004 by Hal Higdon Communications, all rights reserved.


Hal Higdon is a Senior Writer for Runner's World and the author of 34 books including, most recently, "Run, Dogs, Run!" for children. The above article is an adaptation of a speech originally prepared for delivery at the Disney World Marathon. Visit his Web site at www.halhigdon.com. A four-time world masters champion, Higdon provides training schedules and answers questions for Active.com. Click here to access Hal's InterActive Training Guide.


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