Overweight among children and adolescents has now become an epidemic in the United States. Children should be vigorously active for at least 20 – 60 minutes 3 – 5 days a week. Parents and schools must be imaginative and rigorous in encouraging children to exercise.

Role of Parents. Parents must make conscious efforts to limit sedentary activities, and to encourage physical ones for their children. This includes monitoring the time children spend on the computer, in front of the TV, or playing video games. In fact, decreasing the amount of time children spend in front of a screen leads to a reduction in their body mass index (BMI), an indicator of obesity. This loss in BMI in children is the result of increased activity and reduced snacking.

Parents should suggest different forms of entertainment. Even children who aren’t interested in joining a Little League team may enjoy a round of catch with their parents, walking in the park, or swimming in a local lake.

Role of Schools. Early school physical education (PE) programs can make a significant difference, and the earlier these routines are learned the more likely they will be carried forth into a healthy adulthood. There are also physical benefits to PE programs that are just now becoming known. For example, a study found that incorporating jumping exercises into an elementary school’s PE program increased children’s bone densities, a measure of bone strength.

Schools should emphasize team cooperation or individual improvement and self-mastery. Studies have shown that people tend to give up more quickly and feel less competent if their perceptions of success are based only on comparison to their peers.

People mature at different rates, and there seems to be a genetic component to coordination, strength, speed, and one’s response to resistance exercise. Nonetheless, everyone should strive to be as fit as they possibly can, given their strengths and limitations.

New national program. We Can! (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition) is a new national program designed to help children live healthier lives. This program “focuses on three important behaviors: improved food choices, increased physical activity and reduced screen time.”

We can! Is a collaboration of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; and the National Cancer Institute.