While the U.S. brings home more Olympic gold than any other country, many, if not most, American school kids wouldn’t even bring home a tin, if there were such a low-ranking medal.
Recently, colleagues and I set out to see how the fitness of American kids stacked up relative to other countries. Our findings were surprising. Not only did the U.S. finish at the back of the pack, but U.S. kids ranked behind much smaller and some poorer countries, such as Iceland, Chile and Suriname.
Fitness level is an important indicator of sporting success, but it’s also important for your health. You can be fit in different ways — you can be strong like a weightlifter, run fast like a sprinter, be flexible like a gymnast or be skillful like a tennis player.
However, not all of these types of fitness relate well to your health. The most important type of fitness for good health is “aerobic” fitness, which is your ability to exercise vigorously for a long time, like running laps around an oval or biking around the neighborhood.
We explored links between aerobic fitness and broad socioeconomic and demographic factors in each country including wealth inequality, standard of living, childhood obesity, physical activity levels and climate.
Wealth inequality — the gap between rich and poor as measured by the Gini Index — was the strongest correlate of a country’s fitness ranking. In other words, countries with a big gap between rich and poor tended to have low fitness levels.
This could be because countries with a big gap between rich and poor tend to have large subpopulations of poor individuals. Poverty is linked to bad social and health outcomes — one of which being lower aerobic fitness levels — including lower physical activity levels, higher levels of fat, lower life expectancy, increased risk of cardiovascular and other diseases, impairment of children’s growth and social disintegration.
This finding suggests that initiatives to reduce the gap between rich and poor, such as progressive taxation regimes, salary regulation or income redistribution, might be suitable population approaches to increase fitness.
What can you do to improve your — and your kids’ — aerobic fitness?
Forming good fitness habits is important, but it’s also fun. Try joining a sporting club, go swimming at the beach regularly with friends or play basketball at the local playground after school. Keep each other inspired to keep exercising.
For real improvement in your aerobic fitness, the Office for Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends you do at least 150 minutes weekly, and your kids at least 60 minutes daily, of moderate to vigorous exercise that uses the big muscles of the body. This includes exercises like running, biking or swimming, or playing sports like basketball, soccer or hockey.
Even better, an additional 20 minutes of the more vigorous “huff and puff” exercise will put you on the right path to developing the fitness habits that will keep you healthy now and into the future.
One method, called interval training, involves exercising as hard as you can for a few minutes, then having a few minutes rest, and repeating a few more times. It’s not easy, and you’ll need to work up to it. Your kids will probably beat you, and, chances are they will enjoy it!
Also, why don’t you throw a little low-tech in with your high-tech and try “snacking” on exercise throughout the day until you build up the fitness and confidence to reach the recommended target? Remember to choose a range of “huff and puff” activities you like or think you might like to try, and get moving now toward a healthier you and healthier kids, too.