This past weekend marked not only the end of summer, but the start of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. As we all know, childhood obesity is a growing problem in our country, caused by factors such as poor diet and sedentary lifestyle. Over Labor Day weekend, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) held an event to reveal that the physical inactivity of our youth has become a public health epidemic that they intend to help resolve.
Currently in the midst of the second week of competition for the U.S. Open tennis championships in Flushing, New York, the USTA also capitalizes on the tournament as a way to bring tennis to America, specifically our youth. The USTA has partnered with over a dozen organizations, including Partnership For A Healthier America, the Clinton Foundation, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, to get our kids active.
"Physical inactivity is estimated in 2009 to have killed about 5.3 million people due to chronic diseases across the world," said Bill Kohl, Professor of Epidemiology and Kinesiology at the University of Texas and Founder and Director of University of Texas Physical Activity Epidemiology Program. According to Kohl, 80 percent of children around the world are not getting enough exercise for optimal health and it's time to do something about it. After all, this generation of children is expected to live five years less than their parents.
Physical inactivity is a huge contributing factor to this calculation. "We as adults have engineered the opportunities for physical activity out of daily life—engineered this to a point where [kids] are sedentary and not physically active," said Kohl. The recommendation from the CDC is that kids participate in 60 minutes of physical activity each day and, according to Kohl, even the best of physical education programs in schools are only able to provide a quarter of that.
The USTA has focused its energies on making tennis a more accessible sport for young players so they can get the exercise they need. "The primary reasons that kids are going to play sports is because it's fun," said USTA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Alexis Colvin. The USTA has worked hard over the past year to develop what they are calling "ten and under tennis"—tennis for young kids using equipment and rules tailored to their size and experience to make the sport more fun to learn. Softer balls, smaller courts, lighter racquets and the elimination of rankings and tournaments for the under-10 age bracket are all part of the reformation.
"Can you imagine we had four-foot tall kids playing with the same ball and racquet as Roger Federer?" said Sue Hunt, USTA Chief Marketing Officer. "We've changed the game and it's fun to play now." Fun is what will keep kids engaged throughout their lives, keeping physical activity up and health benefits with it. The USTA also hopes to be a model for other sports so that children will become lifelong (but not necessarily professional) athletes.
Bob Harper, fitness expert and training extraordinaire of The Biggest Loser, seconds that. "The last thing I would want to see is a child in a gym on a treadmill," he said. "What I want to see is the parents taking their kids on a weekend getaway of hiking and biking." Making exercise fun truly begins at home. "We have to get our parents, not only getting our kids to be more active, but they need to be more active because our children watch what we do."