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'Substantial' Declines Found in Children's Cardiovascular Fitness Worldwide

Across the world, children are approximately 15 percent worse off in terms of cardiovascular fitness than their parents were back when they were young, according to research presented today at the American Heart Association's scientific sessions.

Researchers analyzed 50 studies on time changes in long-distance running performance of more than 25 million children, ages 9 to 17, from 28 countries. The studies took place between 1964 and 2010, which allowed the researchers to compare today's youths to those of the previous generation.

Beyond the overall 15-percent decline in cardiovascular fitness among today's youths, the researchers found that cardiovascular endurance dropped roughly 5 percent every decade. In the United States, youths' cardiovascular fitness fell an average of 6 percent per decade between 1970 and 2000.

What does that decline in cardiovascular fitness mean in practical terms? It takes children today roughly one minute and 30 seconds longer to run a mile than it did for youths 30 years ago.

The researchers speculated that a "network of social, behavioral, physical, psychosocial, and physiological factors" were behind the declines, which "highlight the need for regular surveillance of child and youth health-related fitness and proactive public-health strategies."

"We need to help to inspire children and youth to develop fitness habits that will keep them healthy now and into the future," said Grant Tomkinson, the lead author of the study and a senior lecturer in the University of South Australia's School of Health Sciences, in a statement. "They need to choose a range of physical activities they like or think they might like to try, and they need to get moving."

Here's a visual breakdown of the major findings of Tomkinson's study, via the AHA:

SS13 - abs 13498 - Tomkinson infographic.jpg

"It's something that I've been saying for a long time to my patients," said Dr. Michael Gewitz, an AHA spokesperson and physician-in-chief at Maria Fareri Children's Hospital at Westechester Medical Center, in an audio perspective on the research. "That is that the type of exercise, not just exercise but the type of exercise, is really important."

Both Gewitz and Tomkinson suggest activities such as running, swimming, and biking as those that can promote cardiovascular fitness among children. Gewitz said that activities such as weightlifting or playing baseball, especially if the child is sitting on the bench for a majority of the time, "[don't] count."

Photo courtesy of the American Heart Association. 

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