Amid rising obesity rates, Mass General psychologist Richard Ginsburg, PhD, says adults need to take action to encourage kids' exercise.

The issue of kids’ exercise has grown in importance in recent years. More than one-third of all children and adolescents are overweight or obese, according to recent data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Yet at the same time that this alarming trend continues, schools are cutting back on physical education,” says Richard Ginsburg, PhD, co-director of the MGH Paces Institute of Sport Psychology.

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A 2013 Institute of Medicine report found that, to prepare for testing, nearly half of all school administrators have cut time for physical education, arts and recess.

Despite the popularity of team sports, many children and adolescents aren’t exercising at all, says Dr. Ginsburg, who is a clinical psychologist and sport psychology consultant. The reasons why schools have moved away from kids’ exercise and physical activity include budget, field limitations and competing demands to prepare for standardized testing.

In fact, the Institute of Medicine’s 2013 report, “Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School,” found that to prepare for testing, nearly half of all school administrators have cut time for physical education, arts and recess. Only half of young people are meeting the recommended daily hour of physical activity. Regarding kids’ exercise, the report said schools can and should play a role in helping students to become more active — before, during and after school.

Dr. Ginsburg agrees that schools should have a role in creating an environment where children and teens are regularly exercising. Some high schools have physical education curricula that emphasize lifelong personal fitness. But by far most schools no longer have daily gym or, at the elementary school level, recess. “This makes for a long and challenging day for
highly active kids,” Dr. Ginsburg adds.

Some children are more interested in highly competitive or team sports or sports that involve balls, Dr. Ginsburg says. Others gravitate to individual sports like swimming or karate.

Physical activity goes hand in hand with a healthy diet to control weight, he points out. “Though diet is key to weight loss, exercise is great for maintenance of weight loss,” says Dr. Ginsburg, who has worked as a staff psychologist in the past for the Mass General Weight Center.

Encouraging Kids’ Exercise

Dr. Ginsburg encourages families to expose their children from a young age to a variety of different sports. “Get them to try things and see what they like,” he says. “Be patient and persistent. Make it part of their growing experience to be in tune and comfortable with their bodies.”

Kids may be willing to try something new if there are a few good friends playing as well. To encourage kids’ exercise, parents can also model the behaviors they want their children to emulate, by exercising themselves and through the foods served at home, he suggests. “If they see mom and dad jog or play tennis or do a workout video at home, they’ll see that being active is part of what we do in our family.”

The co-author of the book “Who’s Game Is It Anyway? A Guide to Helping Your Child Get the Most from Sports,” Dr. Ginsburg is a big proponent of youth sports. “There are so many benefits,” he says, rattling off a few: reduced risk of obesity and cardiovascular illness, an increased ability to focus and pay attention in school, learning to be a team player with shared goals, as well as other social and behavioral benefits.

Dr. Richard Ginsburg says parents can encourage kids' exercise by being physically active themselves.
Dr. Richard Ginsburg says parents can encourage kids’ exercise by being physically active themselves.

Some children are more interested in highly competitive or team sports or sports that involve balls, he says. Others gravitate to individual sports like swimming or karate. “To me, the most important thing is that we are getting them engaged and making it a part of their lifestyle,” he says.

Staying in the Game

“I think we need to find ways to promote recreational athletics for the vast majority of kids who don’t have the opportunity to play competitively,” says Dr. Ginsburg, who also director of psychological services at the Mass General Sports Concussion Clinic.

Dr. Ginsburg is also concerned that there are few options to play team sports by the time teens reach high school. Much money and time is invested in the often unrealistic hope that a child may play collegiate sports. “I think we need to find ways to promote recreational athletics for the vast majority of kids who don’t have the opportunity to play competitively,” he says.

“I think we need to find ways to promote recreational athletics for the vast majority of kids who don’t have the opportunity to play competitively,” Dr. Ginsburg says.

In terms of kids’ exercise, times have changed since the days when children came home from school, dropped their books and played outside. “We used to ride bikes, climb trees, build forts, play wiffle ball and even if we were using our imaginations, we were running around and keeping our bodies moving,” Dr. Ginsburg recalls.

Mindful of today’s safety concerns, Dr. Ginsburg has other ideas. Parent organizations and schools can sponsor before-school or after-school kids’ exercise programs, or weekend recreational teams. They can partner with local YMCAs or Boys and Girls clubs. Parents can take turns with other parents to meet their children after school to walk together to a local park to play or to walk back and forth to school. “There’s power in taking action,” he says, “as opposed to just talking about it.”