Prior to the pandemic, fewer than one in four children participated in the daily physical-activity requirements recommended by federal and state authorities. School closures and disruptions due to COVID-19 will only increase the risk of physical inactivity among youth.
Without school sports, intramurals, regular P.E. classes, or even recess — where many of us have some of our best memories of fun schoolyard games — the isolated nature of online learning risks contributing to a sedentary existence for kids that’s at odds with good health, and with a multi-decade-long fight against childhood obesity. In the coming months, we don’t just have to keep kids learning. We have to keep them moving.
It’s vital to our kids’ health, well-being and their ability to learn.
In fact, in one of our first published reports and summits at GENYOUth, the nonprofit organization I lead that’s dedicated to creating healthier school communities, we focused a lot on what we call “The Learning Connection.” It’s the link between nutrition, physical activity and cognition, or a child’s ability to learn. In that report, we featured an illustrative graphic of a child’s brain, specifically the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and emotions. Essentially, the hippocampus “lights up” when active for a minimum of 20 minutes daily. Physical activity is to our brain like turning on the light switch in a dark room. I often say to my team, and to many CEOs I advise, that when I’m out on my daily six-mile run, my best ideas come to life because my brain is lit up.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 60 minutes of daily physical activity as being optimum for youth. My own organization’s signature school wellness program, “Fuel Up to Play 60,” is founded on that very belief.
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According to both the Centers for Disease Control and HHS, young people who are physically active tend to have better grades, higher school attendance, better cognitive performance and improved classroom behaviors. And regular physical activity can help improve cardiorespiratory fitness, build strong bones and muscles, contribute to a healthy weight, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
With all that in mind, let me offer this advice to other parents and caregivers:
Remember that, for many teens, sports is part of their identity and their way out. According to my organization’s recent survey, “Life Disrupted: The Impact of COVID-19 on Teens,” which explored how teens are handling the pandemic, more than half (54 percent) of youth are experiencing a “huge impact” when it comes to athletic participation. Loss of a season of sports, and the ability to maintain conditioning, both physical and mental, can lead to some students losing a key part of their sense of self and for many, sports is a ticket to higher education or a way out. Sports allows them to better themselves, excel, and develop important leadership skills. Parents need to be sensitive to that and look for ways for kids to experience and develop the same life skills that sports teaches them.
Listen carefully to the CDC. According to the CDC’s “Considerations for Youth Sports” the lowest-risk activities include “individual training and skill-building, conditioning exercises at home, or working out with family members.” Team-based practices or actual team competitions – particularly with teams from a different geographical area – invite higher risk of transmission. And obviously events involving visitors, volunteers, or spectators, or travel outside the local community, are discouraged, and in many regions legally prohibited. Set a good example by following local rules.
Don’t let them become Zoom zombies. The “Zoom” life (or Google Classroom, or Screencastify, and other online learning platforms) is all about sitting in front of a screen. But make sure kids don’t sit for more than an hour. Ideally, have them take a standing or walking break every half hour. These light-intensity activities mobilize muscles that need movement. Quick bouts of physical activity – doing a household or garden chore, dancing to a YouTube or Tik Tok video, jumping on a bike, grabbing a jump rope, playing hopscotch – are all fun ways to stimulate the body and the mind. In our house, a quick game of ping-pong gets our competitive juices flowing. You can then reward yourself with a healthy snack to further sustain your energy.
Get out into nature. It’s more difficult in colder climes, but avoid the temptation to let kids just curl up on the couch to watch TV or play videogames. Put on your masks as a family and walk around the block, toss a football in the backyard, or just “be in nature.” It was Albert Einstein who said, “Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.” Nature has a brilliant calming influence on all of us and, importantly, it reduces stress. Take a hike around the neighborhood. Keep the group size under 10 and maintain social distancing, per CDC guidelines. And, if you can, make this a daily activity. Routine and rituals are key right now.
Take advantage of online resources. There’s an array of free and age-appropriate exercise classes and movement opportunities on the internet, including yoga, boxing, and kid-friendly dance. I know – more screen time. But if it encourages active play and movement, it’s to the good. For thousands of free options, search YouTube under kids’ exercise or movement for kids. Or search some of the great trainers who are offering short workouts on their Instagram live posts.
Have fun indoors. When the snow flies, set up a balloon volleyball court with a piece of yarn for the net and an inflated balloon for the ball. Or turn a hallway into a “hallway soccer” field with masking tape and a wiffle ball. Or set up broom hockey in the basement with a tennis ball. Sure it’s silly, but also surprisingly fun. Be creative! And let your kids’ imaginations run free: you never know what they’ll come up with.
Above all, remember one of the most important things physical activity does is boost our immune systems. In a COVID-19 world, health is everything. Let’s do everything in our power to maintain it, in spite of everything!
Alexis Glick is Chief Executive Officer of GENYOUth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating healthier school communities through programs presented in partnership with the National Football League and the National Dairy Council. Glick also serves as a frequent contributor to many national and international news programs, providing her perspective on global business topics of importance, the financial markets and CEO leadership trends. Prior to GENYOUth’s inception, Glick previously served as a senior media executive, and also appeared in the anchor role on NBC’s Today Show and CNBC’s Squawk Box. In addition to her current executive responsibilities at GENYOUth, and enjoying her active role as mom to four kids, Glick is active in several national and local non-profit institutions. She is a frequent, strategic advisor to CEOs for some of the largest international, blue-chip and Fortune 500 companies on issues relating to media strategy, business development, investor relations and communications and advises professional athletes on social media, branding and public speaking.