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This Change for Kids Could Avert an Expensive Disaster Ahead

Photograph by Twenty20

Sit still. Stay indoors. Cancel recess, we've got tests to study for. All adult directives. All of them ruining kids' lives and, in the long run, costing those very adults a bunch of money.

It's no exaggeration that keeping kids from physical activity has been a decades-long trend that is wrecking children's health—the costly consequences of which are carried over into the adult world. And kids are often prevented from making changes, limited either by income or school rules or the people in charge of safety in their town.

And this lack of even low amounts of daily exercise for kids is an annual $120 billion problem, researchers have concluded.

How do they know? The Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and other health organizations got together and built a computer model of every child in the U.S., Gretchen Reynolds writes in the New York Times. They gathered public infromation on 31.7 million U.S. kids, ages 8 to 11, from the Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups' databases.

They published their findings this week in the journal Health Affairs. What they found surprised even them.

We all know kids these days are at increased risk for being overweight or obese, and that no one goes outside and runs around the neighborhood until dinnertime, like back in the day. What could have possibly been so shocking to the health experts?

The sheer cost this next generation of sedantary citizens will have on society (and are having on us now). And also? How easy it would be to totally reverse it.

According to the models, this inactivity addds up to nearly $3 trillion (with a 't'!) in lost productivity and medical costs, mostly from diabetes and other diseases correlated to weight. What's more is those costs are annual, starting with the year the children reach adulthood and continuging through the decades until their deaths.

The reversal? Increased activity now, while the kids are still 8, 9, 10 and 11 years old. Researchers tweaked the numbers, making them less sedentary in their computer models and the costs associated with inactivity reduced by $32 billion every year. Were they making these kids run marathons in their simulated models? Nope. They made half of these virtual kids do just 25 minutes of vigorous activity three times a week—the kind of activity a kid might engage in during recess or sports. Others in the model did the CDC recommended full hour of vigorous activity every day.

The increased activity then started a cascade of effects, including lowering the incidence of childhood obesity by more than 4 percent, which had repurcussions for the rest of their simulated lives and the society.

"There were about half a million fewer cases of adult-onset heart disease, diabetes, cancer and strokes in this simulation, and the society-wide costs associated with these illnesses dropped by about $32 billion every year if the children romped about for 25 minutes three times per week and by almost $37 billion if they moved for an hour every day."

Researchers couldn't help themselves, so they set the parameters to have 100 percent of the computer kids get regular exercise and, wow, medical expenses and lost productivity fell by $62 billion when they were active three times a week and nearly double that—$120 billion—if they did the hour of vigorous exercise every day.

[C]ities and towns need to fund sports programs, big parks, bike lanes, non-competitive activities and inexpensive ways for families to get out and move ...

So what does this all mean? It means good child health is in everyone's best interest, not just parents'. It means we should all be making decisions and planning for a society where children can move about freely and safely, where Mom and Dad don't get arrested for letting their young ones walk to the park alone, where a principal cannot take away recess in order to spend more time on math facts, where a teacher cannot take away recess as a form of discipline. Where all adults say, "Wait, maybe let's regulate advertisting to kids" and stop screaming at strangers who accidentally step on their lawns and kick in for wellness programs and stop turning their heads when programs aimed at supporting healthy kids get signed away by a pandering president.

It means cities and towns need to fund sports programs, big parks, bike lanes, non-competitive activities and inexpensive ways for families to get out and move together, daily. New housing should always include play areas for kids. No apartment or condo complex should preclude children from running around in the commons area. Time off for volunteer coaches, pools in every neighborhood, and printed maps for hiking and biking trails all over town.

It needs to start now. As any parent will tell you, an 8-year-old will be an adult in the blink of an eye. The incentive is there, according to the computer model. Money and lives saved! There's not time to waste to debate the benefits to question the investment. We, as a society, have calories and muscles—not money—to burn.

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