| Updated at: 0857 PST, Wednesday, December 08, 2010|
NEW YORK: Parents hoping to keep their kids active often sign them up for sports, but a new study finds that this may not be enough.
On average, kids enrolled in soccer, baseball or softball exercised heavily for only 45 minutes during practice -- 15 minutes less than the amount recommended by national guidelines.
Among girls who played softball, only 2 percent got at least 60 minutes of strong exercise during practice.
These results will likely come as a surprise to some parents, study author James Sallis at San Diego State University said. "Many parents will sign children up for sports as an enjoyable and regular way to get physical activity, among other benefits," he said in an e-mail. "And the players do get some activity, but I don't think it is enough."
Physical activity is important in childhood because active kids have better mental health and stronger bones, the researcher noted, and exercise helps fight childhood obesity.
However, "providing physical activity is not the main goal of youth sports," Sallis explained. Practices sometimes lasted more than three hours, but much of that time is likely spent improving skills and strategy, during which kids are often standing in line. In baseball, hitting, catching and other skills require little activity, he added. "So, time spent on skills can compete for active time." The emphasis on skills may be one reason girls get such little exercise in softball, he suggested.
Boys, kids 10 or younger, and those enrolled in soccer tended to get more heavy exercise.
Despite national recommendations that kids get a total of at least 60 minutes of moderate to heavy exercise, research suggests that fewer than half do -- and teenagers are even worse.
In the U.S., more than 40 million young people play on a sports team. To investigate whether organized sports help kids get the exercise they need, Sallis and his colleagues outfitted 200 seven- to-14-year-olds with devices that measure physical activity during team practice for soccer, baseball, and softball. The kids practiced at least once per week and had games at least once per week.
The researchers measured how often kids got moderate or vigorous exercise, roughly equivalent to brisk walking and jogging, respectively. "If the kids are breathing heavy and sweating, they are being active," Sallis explained.
Only one-quarter of all participants got at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise, the authors report in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Kids who played soccer exercised an average of 14 minutes longer, and kids 10 or younger got an average of 7 extra minutes of strong exercise. Relative to girls, boys got about 11 extra minutes of heavy exercise.
Kids also get exercise during physical education classes, play and recess, but parents can't count on those activities to make up for what sports lack, Sallis cautioned. Many schools are cutting PE and recess, and kids often have to do homework and eat dinner after sports practice. If they're not getting exercise during organized sports, "there is no time left."
He recommended that coaches and sports organizations work to integrate more fitness and endurance into practices. "If coaches were convinced that fit players were better players, there would be more physical activity during practices."
Russell Pate of the University of South Carolina, who wrote an accompanying editorial, agreed that the organizers of youth sports programs need to take steps to ensure that kids who participate "get as much physical activity as possible while they're doing it."
Furthermore, Pate added, the amount of heavy exercise kids get is "highly variable," both between sports and within sports, suggesting parents need to "be selective" about which teams they sign up for.