Playing outdoors offers lots of social, intellectual, and emotional benefits for children, especially when compared to what they get from passively watching television or playing video games. However, outdoor activities also provide a great solution to the problem of childhood obesity affecting so many Western countries. In the United States, for example, one-third of all children could be classified as either overweight or obese in 2008 according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The UK predicts a quarter of its children will be obese by 2050 if the trend continues.
The Main Cause of Childhood Obesity
According to the CDC, the culprit is a caloric imbalance. That term basically means a child is eating more calories than he or she is using up through activity. Even without activity, the body’s own processes will burn some of those calories but until relatively recently kids were able to keep their weight down because they were much more active.
In the United States, a lot of attention has been paid to the horrible diet young children are consuming but less attention has been directed towards kids’ lack of activity.
Physical Health Benefits of Outdoor Play
Having time to play outdoors does seem to contribute to the health and physical fitness of children. A study conducted in Melbourne, Australia tracked the amount of physical activity and outdoor play engaged in by a randomly selected group of boys and girls between 2001 and 2004. By 2004, those kids who were the most active and spent the most time outdoors in 2001 were also the most physically fit and least likely to be overweight in 2004. A review of studies found that one consistent theme was that children who spent time outdoors were more physically active than those who did not.
Even among different socioeconomic classes, the same idea seems to apply. Another study of the medical records for more than 4,000 low socioeconomic children found a correlation between higher amounts of green space in a child’s neighborhood and lower Body Mass Index (BMI) scores. This suggests that when kids have more space available for outdoor play it can help them keep their weight in check.
When kids are more active, they use up more calories. While healthy eating choices are important, just choosing to eat carrots instead of fries is not enough to stop childhood obesity.
Being outdoors can also provide further physical health benefits. For example, Vitamin D from the sunshine can enhance a child’s immune system. Vitamin D can also help improve bone strength and may reduce the risks of diabetes. A study published in 2009 found 70% of U. S. children were either Vitamin D deficient or insufficient. The same study also identified a link between not having sufficient levels of Vitamin D in the body to high blood pressure and high cholesterol: two important factors in the development of the cardiovascular disease.
Other studies have also shown that trees can reduce the development of asthma in young children and outdoor play can reduce the risks of nearsightedness.
With all of the evidence of these potential benefits, it seems time to get the kids away from the TV and out to the park.