By: Jenn Ripepi, MD, Choosy Pediatrician
You may have heard that "sitting is the new smoking" in the last few years. What is meant by this is that sitting for long periods is bad for our health in many ways. We are meant to move and do it frequently. So what does this mean for our children and their futures?
Sitting decreases our need to breathe deeply, to have our muscles contract and demand increased blood flow. That is the opposite of aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise is the kind that improves your blood flow and helps to prevent plugged arteries. When we walk, run, swim, and bike or do other activities which get us to breathe harder and our hearts to pump faster, it helps to keep our arteries clear. When we sit we are not using our muscles and letting our blood vessels keep opened up as much as when we move. Over time, that that adds up.
Sit Up Straight
Teaching children to have good posture is important, especially in the pre-school years. Children grow at a rapid pace during their first four years of life and there is an increase in postural responses. It then regresses until adult postural reflexes are reached sometime between 7-10 years of age. So as professionals see it, the most “training”, or using correct sitting/standing positions in static posture and its dynamic reflexes occurs during the early pre-school years of life.
Our overall posture is affected by sitting for long periods. We tend to let our heads drop and that in turn leads our shoulders to hunch forward and our lower backs to curve forward. Our core muscles in our abdomen and lower back get weak. We end up with lower back problems and the whole host of other spinal problems like headaches. For our children who have developing skeletons this is a stress that may force their posture to be permanently impacted. That leads me to the next point.
Build Strong Bones
Strong bones are built not just from calcium and phosphorus but by being used. We have learned from the astronauts in space for long periods that their bone mass decreases when they are out of Earth's gravity. That led others to look at what happens here on the Earth's surface in a number of situations. People have more bone mass when they are physically working against gravity in what we refer to as weight-bearing exercise. That means walking, running, jumping, climbing---moving your body against the Earth's gravitational pull. If children are not moving, they are not building the strong bones to carry them through their lifetimes.
Muscles are meant to be used! Our bodies have been built for walking, running, climbing and jumping. If we don't use our muscles, they tend to become weak. Weak muscles can be built up but it takes a lot more work to build strong muscles when someone has not been used to using them. Ask anyone who has gone through physical therapy after an injury and a period of rest. They likely will tell you it was difficult to get started but got easier as their therapy progressed.
You wouldn’t believe how often I heard in my practice as a pediatrician that kids are tired all the time! Then I'd ask what they "did" all day and they'd answer that they spent most of their time sitting! Not really "doing" anything! They were bored! Our minds need physical as well as mental stimulation.
A few years ago I read a study about recess in schools and children's performance. Children who had recess with active free play did better in afternoon classes and with their behaviors than children who did not have that opportunity. Children are in classrooms for hours and are kept sitting for that time. They sit on the bus. They sit to do homework. Then many sit in front of a television or video games or other device when they get home. And don’t forget, when they are sitting, they should be at least practicing proper posture or they may have issues down the road.
What Can We Do As Child Advocates?
It is important to help young children learn that when their heart beats faster because they are moving, it is actually healthy and good for them. Help them identify if their heart is "resting," happy, or very happy based on sensing their heart rate. Continue to reinforce the idea of happy, healthy hearts for the entire family. Make everyone’s hearts happy in your family and engage in active movement together.
At home, keep active not only to help your children but to help yourself. Less screen time and more active time as a family. If you and your children are watching a television show or engaging in technology of some kid, have frequent movement breaks to encourage blood flow and muscle use.
Music is also a great tool to get our hearts beating. There are many different types of music that enable children to expand upon their listening horizons, imaginations and movements. Allow your children to listen to a variety of music and dance and sing along with them.
When you are on the go, free play outside stimulates big movements and strength and allows children to explore their surroundings. The fresh air and open spaces allow those big, deep breaths we need to keep up with our bodies' demand for oxygen.
When children are required to sit in school, ask the teachers how they build movement into their lessons. Ask how recess is spent during inclement weather and advocate for active play indoors in a large open space when possible, if the students cannot go outside frequently. (You may be able to let the educators know that they'll have more alert and better behaved children when they allow recess.)
Try to observe how long children sit when you are with them. A little activity break during homework time can help their concentration. Additionally, try to avoid the command to sit still except when it is really needed (like mealtimes, religious services, haircuts, etc). As we as a society begin to relearn that we are meant to move frequently, we can let our children lead us naturally in movement. All we have to do is follow their lead!
How do you help your children stay active and moving, rather than sitting all day?
About the Author: I have been a pediatrician for over 25 years. My husband and I have been privileged to raise 4 bright and healthy children. I have tried to gather wisdom from the families I have been blessed to meet during my journey. I believe in practical and flexible parenting to help raise healthy adults. I love to garden, hike, travel and cook and I am looking forward to hearing from Choosy followers.