Letters from Maine

Moderate activity versus sweat equity


It’s no secret that the fitness level of all age groups in our country is poor. A recent study in Pediatrics sharpens the focus on the question of how we might address the problem in the teenage population. Based in England, the investigators placed wrist accelerometers on their 13- and 14-year-old subjects who were then assessed using shuttle runs at progressively faster speeds.

The researchers found that the participants’ cardiorespiratory fitness improved as the subjects’ time doing vigorous activity increased up to 20 minutes and then plateaued. The study authors could not prove that the vigorous activity caused the increased in fitness. However, they were impressed by the plateau phenomenon and suggest that this might suggest a change in the recommendations by the World Health Organization and U.S. Department of Health & Human Services which currently call for 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day for adolescents

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

At first blush a shift down to 20 minutes of vigorous activity would appear to be workable and achievable. This would be particularly true for public school systems that are already struggling to get any kind of activity shoehorned into their schedules that are already crammed in an attempt to address mandated academic achievement goals. Freeing up an additional 40 minutes of the school day and yielding improved cardiorespiratory fitness sounds like a win-win.

But, let’s take a deep breath and for a few moments return to the world of reality. First, how many school systems are providing that 60 minutes of moderate activity (let’s forget the vigorous piece for the moment) included in the current WHO/HHS recommendations? Next, let’s take a look at what “vigorous” activity means. There are variety of definitions but in general they include sweating, flushing, and dyspnea to the point of having difficulty speaking.

Let’s just focus on the “sweating” part. To me that sounds like an activity that would require some wardrobe alteration at a minimum and very likely a locker room and a shower. Those can be fightin’ words for many teenagers. Even if a school can provide adequate locker room and shower infrastructure change-ups and showers are time-gobbling activities. And, more realistically, what are the chances of getting body image–challenged adolescents to willingly take advantage of them? You don’t have to talk to very many adults before you will hear stories of discomfort and embarrassment resulting from forced locker room and shower experiences. When I was a teenager the only way you could flunk physical education was to refuse to go in the locker room and “change up.” I think or at least hope that physical educators are more sensitive to the fragility of their adolescents students. But, the bottom line is that creating a curriculum that will improve cardiorespiratory fitness is fraught with challenges most school systems can’t address. It’s sad but true.

So, where does that leave us? This new study from England may be helpful for families who are caught in a time crunch and looking improve their fitness or for the physical educator who would like to help his/her motivated students get on a healthier track. But, this study should not prompt us to throw up our hands and toss out the current recommendations of an hour of moderate activity. As unrealistic as it may be for most school systems it allows for the injection of physical activity into academic settings where creative educators can offer things like walking lectures and field trips. It all boils down to the fact that some activity is better than none at all with or without the sweat equity.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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