Rethinking fitness

In new publication, UND kinesiologist Grant Tomkinson throws a clinical red flag on kids’ declining health around the globe

Grant Tomkinson

Grant Tomkinson, associate professor of kinesiology and public health education at UND, poses with a Velotron cycle, which he uses to test people for different kinds of exercise physiology. Tomkinson recently published an international study that says kids’ fitness levels are declining across the globe, leading to health problems later in life. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Kids’ fitness is declining across the globe. And it’s raising a clinical “red flag” associated with poor health later in life.

That’s the conclusion of an article recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine by Grant Tomkinson, associate professor of kinesiology and public health education.

“If you compare a 10-year-old today and a 10-year-old from 1975,” Tomkinson said, “today’s young people are about 15 percent less fit than their parents were at that age.”

That doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up.

“There is a clinical red flag – a threshold at which low fitness is associated with poor health,” said Tomkinson. “Only half of older kids today achieve the necessary fitness level. Nearly all younger kids are at that level.”

Tomkinson also examined data on 1.1 million kids from 50 countries to determine the proportion of kids with fitness levels that are associated with better health.

“Your physical fitness is a very good indicator of your health today and in the future,” Tomkinson concluded. He looked at the proportion of kids around the world who have fitness levels associated with better health and lower cardiovascular risk, and found that younger children tend to be more fit than older children, and girls are in general healthier than boys. Girls are not necessarily fitter than boys, Tomkinson said, but more girls achieved the fitness standard.

“People who are generally fit are less likely to develop chronic conditions later in life,” he said. “If you have low fitness, you are more likely to develop heart conditions like heart disease, stroke and some cancers when you’re older.”

Tomkinson has always been interested in exercise and sport, and won state championships in track and field in Australia, where he grew up. He taught at the University of Southern Australia and joined the UND kinesiology faculty in 2015. He has spent two decades researching the health benefits of exercise and changes in children’s fitness and weight.

After he and his wife became parents, his interests expanded to look at how the fitness of young people has changed, and what might be done about it.

Cardio-respiratory fitness chart

UND’s Tomkinson, through his study, examined data on 1.1 million kids from 50 countries to determine the proportion of kids with fitness levels that are associated with better health. Graphic courtesy of Grant Tomkinson.

Environment ‘toxic to exercise’

“Today’s children live in an environment that’s toxic to exercise,” said Tomkinson, “and the solutions we throw at them are not always working. We need to come up with workable solutions and find the minimum level associated with health.

“We live in a cotton-wool culture,” Tomkinson said. “The world is built to be easy. There’s never a line for the stairs, but there is for escalators and elevators. We need to make life a little bit harder. It’s too easy to not expend energy.”

More parks may not be the answer. “America, like Australia, Canada and the UK, have low activity but great structures, such as parks, but the population has low physical activity levels,” Tomkinson said. “Other nations may be less wealthy but have higher physical activity.”

And we can’t turn back time. “Kids used to ride bikes to school and play in the street after school,” he said. “That’s not coming back. We need to find different ways to increase physical activity.”

“I want to switch kids on to better health through fitness,” Tomkinson said.

‘Snacking’ on fitness

He suggests “snacking” on physical activity rather than forcing children to “dine” on it. “Kids like short bursts of activity that are intermittent,” he said. “We need to tap into their play patterns and have them ‘snack’ on exercise multiple times per day.”

That means encouraging exercise before, during and after school. “Booster shots of exercise – six 10-minute doses per day work,” Tomkinson said. For example, kids in Australia enjoy two 30-minute recesses, but U.S. kids have only one. Also, many Australian kids take a three- to five-minute “energizer break” several times of day, breaking exercise into “chunks” of walking or stretching.

“Exercise and activity lead to better cognitive performance,” Tomkinson said. “Kids have energy to burn, and need to burn to learn.” Letting them burn off the energy through mini exercise breaks could also decrease classroom disruption and behavioral problems.

Tomkinson recommends that elementary kids be encouraged to try everything and find out what’s fun for them, rather than concentrate on a single sport.

“Kids need to try everything on the exercise menu,” Tomkinson said. “That makes them more likely to develop overall fundamental movement skills, such as running, skipping, hopping, catching, and throwing. There is a danger in trying to funnel them into becoming specialists in a sport too early.”

Adults, too, have a part to play. The amount of exercise recommend for adult minimal health is 30 minutes, five days a week. And both adults and children could be participants rather than spectators when it comes to sports.

“It’s important to rethink fitness,” he said. “We don’t need to be as fit as elite athletes, but we need to encourage mid-level fitness to increase health, both today and tomorrow.”