Children’s Physical Health in the United States

The National Report Card: Hard Facts

In 2016, the non-profit organization The National Physical Activity Plan Alliance  published a comprehensive report on the current state of children’s health in the U.S. called “The United States 2016 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth.” The goal of the report was to offer an objective take on how the United States, as a country, is doing in its effort to keep its children healthy and active. By now—the year 2015— most of the general public, and most certainly everyone involved in education and children’s behavioral health, has heard over and over again that in order to grow up healthy and strong, our children need to engage in some sort of moderate-to-intense activity for at least ten minutes every day, and in addition, they need to engage in some sort of moderate-to-intense activity for sixty minutes at least three days a week.

Over the past decade, there have been countless initiatives, both public and private, to make sure our kids get the minimum amount activity they need. With the overwhelming amount of public attention given to matter, one might think that the country as a whole might be making progress in the area of children’s physical health. But unfortunately, we need to think again: we have a very long way to go.

Benefits of Physical Activity

Although most of the following facts are already known and have been widely disseminated, the Report Card does a great job of putting them all together in one place. Sixty minutes of activity a day for our children has the following benefits:

  • Better overall cardiovascular and metabolic health
  • Better overall fitness
  • Decreased heart disease in adulthood
  • Decreased risk of adult and childhood type 2 diabetes
  • Better bone health and growth
  • Increased overall health and well-being
  • Better cognitive and academic performance
  • Improved overall motor control and function

Report Card Criteria

To gauge whether or not the children in the U.S., as a whole, were getting the exercised required to reap the benefits describe above, the report card analyzed the following ten criteria:

  • General Activity
  • General Non-Active Behavior
  • Types of Transportation
  • Organized Sports
  • Active Play
  • General Fitness
  • Friends and Family Influence
  • School Influence
  • Environment and Community
  • Government Approach and Investment

The Grading System

After analyzing the ten criteria in children and youth based on data gathered from dozens of peer-reviewed scientific reports compiled between the 2008 and 2012, The Report Card graded assigned a school style grade based on the following scale:

A: 81-100 percent of children get what they need.

B: 61-80 percent of children get what they need.

C: 41-60 percent of children get what they need.

D: 21-40 percent of children get what they need.

F: 0-20 percent of children get what they need.

INC: There’s not enough data to assign a grade.

Our Grades

  • General Physical Activity: D-
  • Sedentary Behavior: D
  • Types of Transportation: F
  • Organized Sports: C-
  • Active Play: INC
  • General Fitness: INC
  • Friends and Family Influence: INC
  • School Influence: D+
  • Environment and Community: B-
  • Government Approach and Investment: INC

A Brief Analysis

The truth can be hard to take. As a country, the bottom line is this: we need to do better. We can do better. The report mines the data behind the grades and elaborates on places for us to start, beginning with the “Types of Transportation” category: in 1969, 47.7 percent of children walked or rode bicycles to school, compared with 12.7 percent in 2009. Changing this transportation pattern alone could have a dramatic impact on the overall health of our children.

After that, the “Sedentary Behavior” category shows that almost 50 percent of our children spend at least two hours a day engaging in “screen time”, i.e. watching television or playing on the computer. Changing this behavior pattern could likewise result in dramatic changes in our children’s health. While our grades on this report card may come as a surprise to some, given the amount of media attention given to fighting the obesity epidemic in our children, and the proliferation of movements like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign (2009-2016) and the N.F.L.’s “Play60” initiative, to many of us, it’s no surprise: we see it every day in the children we teach and in the kids we see in our neighborhoods.

There is reason to hope, however—seeing the facts laid out like this may galvanize the nation to take better care of our children, set better examples for physical activity and general health, and meet the stated goal of the The National Physical Activity Plan Alliance:

“One day, all Americans will be physically active and they will live, work, and play in environments that facilitate regular physical activity.”