With an ever-expanding array of technological gadgets at their fingertips, children today have plenty to keep them entertained, busy and in touch with the outside world. So much so, perhaps, that they sometimes neglect that world — and the consequences for their health can be serious. New research suggests that those who spend their time physically inactive now could be storing up significant problems for the future.
A study from Europe advises that children who spend more than two hours a day in front of a TV can increase their likelihood of high blood pressure by as much as 30 percent. The research was conducted jointly by a transatlantic team based in Brazil and Spain who also discovered that opting out entirely from doing physical exercise — and that includes doing less than an hour a day — increases the risk by 50 percent.
The study, published in the International Journal of Cardiology, shows how the tendency of children to spend ever-increasing amounts of time on computers, playing videogames or watching TV can lead to health problems further down the line. "High blood pressure," says Augusto César Ferreira de Moraes, from the School of Medicine at the University of São Paulo, "can cause cardiovascular problems later in life. For example, he says, it can increase the risk of "ischemic heart disease," which weakens the heart muscle walls and may result in arrhythmia and even heart attack.
The team's findings are based on data from a previous five-year analysis — across 8 countries — of 16,228 children, all of whom were between 2 and 9 years old when the study began. The scientists examined dietary and lifestyle habits, looking at physical and sedentary activity, in an attempt to further understand the precise problems caused by obesity in young people. From this, the team took a smaller sample for the new study — a little more than 5,000 — and charted their progress throughout a two-year period.
The problem of childhood obesity has been long understood. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in the U.S., obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the last 30 years — with more than a third recorded as overweight or obese by 2012. As well as cardiovascular issues, these children are at risk from many other factors, such as diabetes, bone and joint problems and cancer.
Analysis of the data, says de Moraes, "shows the number of new high blood pressure cases and the connection between physical activity and different sedentary behaviors with the risk of high blood pressure in European children." In those studied, the report outlines, more than 1 in 10 was shown to have elevated blood pressure.
According to Science Daily, "different studies have demonstrated that the levels of arterial pressure in infancy and adolescence have an enormous impact on developing high blood pressure as an adult." With more than a tenth of children in the study showing signs or "pre-signs" of high blood pressure, this is hardly surprising.
As worrying as this all sounds, the simple answer is to encourage a bit of get up and go. Though, decreasing body mass can clearly reduce health risks in the long term for overweight children, increased physical activity can help blood pressure right away. "Scientific evidence indicates that physical activity is a powerful vasodilator," says de Moraes. "Therefore, the rate of oxygenation of the heart increases, and at the same time, decreases arterial pressure." In other words, a bit of physical exertion means the body takes in more oxygen, opening up the blood vessels and lowering pressure.
It's fair to say that habits learned in childhood tend to persist and this can be especially important to remember when thinking about health. "The figures are worrying," says the team, "given that sedentary behaviors are common in infancy and subsequently, later in life." They advise making sure children limit periods of inactivity to two hours and that they participate in some kind of physical activity for at least an hour a day. There's no need to go nuts — taking walks together can be a good start as the weather gets warmer. Don't try to do — or expect — too much too soon. Start slowly. And it goes without saying that you should consult your doctor if you or your kids are setting out on any kind of fitness regime.
According to the CDC, "the dietary and physical activity behaviors of children and adolescents are influenced by many sectors of society." Schools, they say can "play a particularly critical role by establishing a safe and supportive environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors."
Encouraging children to temporarily ditch the computer for something a little more physical may not be the easiest task starting out. Check out the Let's Move website to keep informed and for tips on how to get kids involved with healthy activities and eating. They may not see the benefit of it straight away but they are bound to thank you in the long run.