<i> Roan is a health writer</i> for <i> The Times</i>

Dorothea Evans recently spent $300 on a private exercise and nutrition class to help her 15-year-old daughter lose the 20 pounds the teen-ager had gained during her first year of high school.

The South Bay family also shells out about $70 a month for their daughter and a son, age 10, to participate in private swim teams and soccer leagues.

And recently, Evans dashed off a letter to the principal of her daughter’s school complaining of the lack of physical activities for children who aren’t athletic enough to make the school’s competitive sports teams.

Evans explains her and her husband’s efforts on behalf of their children this way: “If we don’t do it, they’ll end up eating potato chips and watching TV.”


According to health experts, this conscientious mother has good reason to be concerned.

A decade’s worth of fitness tests and medical studies conclude that children in the United States today are generally heavier, more sedentary and less interested in physical activity than ever before. The harshest of these studies predict that today’s young generation of couch potatoes will take their poor health habits into adulthood at a cost of billions in preventable medical problems.

Most experts blame this declining fitness on three factors: the deterioration of physical-fitness instruction in schools (largely due to financial constraints that forced cutbacks in non-academic subjects); social and lifestyle changes that influence children to remain indoors (TV and video games) and environmental factors (such as pollution and crime that in some areas make it unsafe for children to play outside).

“The child has very little control over many elements in his life that cause poor health,” says Vern Seefeldt, director of the the Youth Sports Institute at Michigan State University, a program dedicated to fitness research and education.


But something must be done to improve the fitness level among the nation’s children. At the very least, fitness experts agree that several decades of direct education cutbacks has caused the erosion of physical education in the nation’s schools, a costly mistake, Seefeldt says.

“I think we have more consensus about this because the prestige of physical education in schools is lower than it has ever been,” Seefeldt says.

Studies on fitness achievement show that the image of the American youth as robust and energetic is heavily tarnished. A 1989 study based on one of the most respected assessments of childhood physical education in the nation--the Chrysler Fund Amateur Athletic Union Physical Fitness Program--found that the proportion of children reaching or exceeding the minimal standards on four fitness tests had declined from 43% to 32%. Of the 9 million children tested, ages 6 to 17, only 6% attained a fitness level considered outstanding.

Children did just as poorly in a similar assessment conducted in California in 1988 and 1989. Only 17% of fifth-graders, 21% of seventh-graders and 26% of ninth-graders were able to meet four out of five fitness standards. The test was developed by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, a respected fitness organization.

Other medical evidence has begun to outline the consequences of poor childhood fitness levels, the most obvious being obesity.

According to the AAU-Chrysler study, the average weight among 12- and 13-year-old boys increased eight pounds over the past decade with only a slight increase in height.

Since the 1960s, obesity has increased almost 54% among 6- to 11-year-olds and 39% among 12- to 17-year-olds, according to a May, 1987, study by Tufts New England Medical Center and the Harvard School of Public Health Research.

The lack of aerobic exercise combined with a diet high in fat, salt and sugar presage future appointments with a cardiologist in children as young as age 5, studies suggest.


Twenty percent to 30% of children ages 3 to 18 have above-average blood cholesterol levels, the American Health Foundation reported last year. And high blood cholesterol levels in children ages 2 to 20 are directly correlated to TV watching, UC Irvine researchers found recently. According to the study’s co-author, Kurt V. Gold, the three hours the average American child spends each day watching TV, during which the child could be physically active, exposes the child to ads promoting junk foods, which lead to incessant snacking.

Findings of high cholesterol in children are supported by other studies, although experts dispute whether high cholesterol levels in childhood are a predictor of cholesterol problems in adulthood. But by age 5, many children exhibit some of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease seen in adults, researchers report in a September study in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

According to the authors, poor fitness habits early in life may become permanent, leading to excessive obesity and increased cardiovascular risk later in life.

“The activity patterns we establish during our youth tend to carry over into our adult lives,” says Kenneth Cooper, a Dallas-based aerobics guru who has just completed his 10th book on fitness--this one on fitness and children. “Even in kids 5 to 6 years of age there is a relationship between fitness, obesity and blood pressure. These kids are establishing habits that they will probably continue for the rest of their lives.”

Indeed, by the time many people recognize the importance of fitness, it’s difficult to do anything about it, says Gail Weldon, owner of Fitness TRACC, a Los Angeles exercise facility, and director of athletic training for the 1984 Summer Olympics.

“These people come into the gym and are deciding at age 35 to do something with their bodies and they’re angry,” (at having never been exposed to fitness),” she says. “Look at how many years they’ve missed.”

The tragedy of the declining fitness status among children, health experts say, is that many studies have shown that much human suffering and economic cost can be averted by lifelong patterns of good nutrition and moderate aerobic exercise.

“Poor fitness is going to affect everyone because of health-care costs,” says Michael S. Willett, program manager of the Chrysler Fund/AAU program, which is administered by Indiana University.


Physical and economic benefits are only part of the return from investing in childhood fitness programs, experts say. Educators agree that physically fit children have higher self-esteem, confidence and body image.

“The things people are finding in corporate fitness programs--that employees are more alert and are less stressed and have lower absenteeism--don’t just apply to adults. They apply to children, too,” says Weldon, who created a children’s fitness program, KidFit.

Seefeldt says studies have shown a high correlation between fit children and higher academic scores. “An unhealthy child is also one who is going to have trouble with other parts of the curriculum,” he says. “I think we can justify an increase in the time spent on physical education because it will make children more efficient learners.”

Such exposure can be best achieved in schools through daily physical education for kindergarten-through-12th-grade students taught by trained instructors. But that kind of structure, once a solid part of public-school curriculum, is now in tatters.

Physical education has eroded primarily because of financial cuts, but Weldon says many programs were cut because they were poorly planned and implemented: The equipment was poor, the instructors were not well-trained, and students were bored with the classes. Only one state, Illinois, currently mandates daily physical-education classes for all students, kindergarten through 12th grade. According to a 1987 government study, only 36% of American children receive formal physical education in schools three or more times a week.

“I think it’s going to be critical to keep schools involved,” says Wilmer Mizell, executive director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. “That’s where we have our kids nine months of the year. If we miss them there, we’ll miss many forever. If we go to agency-sponsored programs,” he adds, “then many children are left out. These programs are inaccessible to children in lower socioeconomic groups.”

Others believe that public schools are too overburdened with declining academic scores to direct new resources and energy into fitness programs. They contend that the solution resides with parents, pediatricians, community youth and recreation leaders and corporate sponsors of youth-fitness programs.

Cooper refuses to clobber the already burdened school system. “They don’t have the time. They don’t have the equipment. They don’t have the leadership. To expect an overnight change in the schools isn’t realistic,” he says. “I’m placing the burden of responsibility on the parent. I think to place the responsibility on the schools is a cop-out. I think it has to start in the home.”

Cooper tells parents that teaching kids about fitness may be as simple as serving nutritious foods, limiting TV and video time and--the clincher--practicing what you preach.

But others find flaws in this argument.

“It would be nice to think that that would happen,” Weldon says. “But tell me how the parents of six, who work in a factory, will take their children’s fitness on themselves? That’s not realistic for the majority of the population.”

Most experts suggest that it will take partnerships involving schools, parents and community organizations to elevate fitness to a priority worth pursuing.

Some school systems are exploring the idea of contracting out physical education to outside consultants or taking advantage of offers from local business people and fitness advocates, such as Weldon, who wish to help. For example, Weldon’s KidFit program, which includes a poster depicting basic exercises, is designed to give busy teachers who are untrained in fitness instruction a simple teaching tool.

“It’s the responsibility of all of us to look at what kids need,” she says. “I don’t think it’s fair to foist it on any one group.”