By Avery D. Faigenbaum, Ed.D., FACSM and Gregory D. Myer, Ph.D., FACSM

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Avery D. Faigenbaum, Ed.D., FACSM, is a Professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at The College of New Jersey where his research interests focus on the health and fitness benefits of integrative strength and conditioning on children and adolescents.

Gregory. D. Myer, Ph.D., FACSM, is the Director of Research and the Human Performance Laboratory for the Division of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Dr. Myer’s research interests focus on injury biomechanics, human performance, pediatric exercise science and preventive medicine.

This commentary presents Dr. Faigenbaum’s and Dr. Myer’s views associated with an article they coauthored with other colleagues and which appears in the September/October 2013 issue of ACSM’s Current Sports Medicine Reports. 

Nationwide, fewer school-age youth participate regularly in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and the decline and disinterest in play and games appears to progress steadily after age six. The prevalence of overweight and obesity among children and adolescents is a
major public health concern and the World Health Organization now recognizes physical inactivity as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality for non-communicable diseases. Yet, despite the fact that schools are an ideal setting for public health initiatives, daily physical education taught by well-trained specialists is provided in only 4% of elementary schools, 8% of middle schools, and 2% of high schools in the United States (for added information, see:

We are failing to provide school-age youth with prerequisite levels of health- and skill-related fitness which are needed to form the foundation for a lifetime of physical activity. Without opportunities to participate regularly in a variety of physical activities early in life, youth tend to be less active later in life. Consequently, we need to pay greater attention to the identification of physically inactive children before they become resistant to our interventions. But the problem is that the American health care system does not emphasize prevention during the growing years even though childhood is characterized by the establishment of healthy and unhealthy behaviors. Physical activity, like cigarette smoking, is a learned behavior that is influenced by one’s family, friends and environment.

While participating daily in at least 60 minutes of MVPA is consistent with current youth guidelines, we believe that fitness programs for school-age youth should involve more than program design focused just on sets and repetitions. That is, youth programs should include a variety of age-related games and exercises that are purposely designed to enhance muscular fitness and fundamental movement skills. We are not suggesting that free play is inconsequential, but rather that daily physical activity may need to be “prescribed” and taught by well-trained specialists in youth with exercise deficits. This message needs to be supported within the family structure. Instead of high-tech electronic gizmos and gadgets, activities for school-age youth should promote social interactions as well as the development of neurocognitive processes that encourage desired behaviors and reinforce preferred movement patterns.

In it naive to believe that children innately know how to properly jump, skip, throw or catch. Similar to the instruction of arithmetic and language arts, these physical skills need to be improved with guidance and instruction from well-trained specialists who understand the influence of cognitive development on skill mastery and performance. It has been proposed that there is a high degree of plasticity in neuromuscular development during preadolescence, and we contend that appropriately timed and implemented integrative training may allow for strengthened physical, mental, social and cognitive development via an interconnected dynamic system.

Contemporary trends in youth physical inactivity and childhood obesity indicate that our symptom-reactive approach to this matter is suboptimal and the frequency of physical education is inconsistent with the goal of preventing diseases and conditions before they become clinically apparent. Without comprehensive, innovative and aggressive school-based interventions that target the developing body and mind, contemporary youth will be inefficient “movers” on the playground and suboptimal “thinkers” in the classroom.

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