What's Made Our Kids Soft?

updated 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Youth is like an electric current—boundless energy in perpetual motion. That, at least, is what most people think. Alas, most people can now pull the plug on that notion. A report last month by the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sport found that, at the very time when 60 percent of American adults exercise regularly (a rise of 12 percent in two years), their children have never been in poorer shape. What's more, in terms of fitness, those under 18 have shown no improvement since the 1960s, and among girls, the scores have significantly declined.

"The best-kept secret in America is the lack of youth fitness," says George Allen, the Council's chairman and former coach of the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins. At 63, he still runs at least five miles daily and works out with weights. In discussing the dismal findings with correspondent Barbara Rowes, Allen commented: "The shocker to me is that kids can't even run a mile as fast as someone in my shape can walk it."

Whatever happened to Huckleberry Finn time, when kids spontaneously ran, jumped, climbed trees, threw stones?

When I was a kid I did all those things. There is a different life-style now. Kids spend their time doing passive things—sitting, watching TV, riding in a car. If I had the youth of this country on my football team, I'd really worry.

How do you know youth is so out of shape?

Since 1958 the Council has undertaken a major fitness study every decade. The current survey, designed by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, tested almost 19,000 boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 17 in 57 school districts and 187 elementary and high schools.

How were they tested?

An expert committee selected nine standard events including bent-knee sit-ups, pull-ups, the 50-yard dash and two-mile walk. We found, for example, that 40 percent of boys between 6 and 12 can't do more than one pull-up, and one in four can't do any. That's alarming. When I showed this to our 75-year-old President, Mr. Reagan said: "I think I can do one."

And the girls?

Seventy percent can't do more than one pull-up, a large number can't do any. The girls don't try. They get up there and say, "I can't do this," and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Were the kids better at other events?

No. Forty-five percent of boys from 6 to 14 and 55 percent of all girls can't hold their chins over a raised bar for more than 10 seconds. That's a disgrace. I bet nearly everyone who reads this magazine can do that. And approximately 50 percent of girls aged 6 to 17 and 30 percent of boys 6 to 12 can't run a mile in less than 10 minutes.

What is junk food doing to kids?

Among teenagers, obesity has increased by 40 percent in the past two decades. At least one-fifth of teens aged 12 to 17 are 20 percent overweight. And 40 percent of young kids aged 5 to 8 already show one factor contributing to heart disease.

Don't workout gurus like Jane Fonda encourage youngsters to shape up?

Apparently not. Girls at all ages scored poorly. They improve steadily until age 14, when they fall off in every test. They don't feel that doing pull-ups will get them dates.

How do you get girls interested in sports?

You have got to make sports fun. Most girls aren't interested in weight lifting. My daughter, Jennifer, for instance, loves aerobics and jazzercise. Dancing is fun, plus it's exercise. You've got to come up with things girls like to do, like tennis and swimming.

How does American youth rank worldwide in fitness?

The U.S. ranks behind the Soviet Union, East and West Germany, China, Poland and Israel. From seeing the programs the Soviets have, I'd place them in the top three. By contrast, we may have the facilities and money, but we don't have programs and instructors in the schools, where it counts. I'd say we're about 19th or 20th. To me, that is as bad as last place.

How did we get this way?

Many schools no longer have physical fitness programs. Only 36 percent of all youngsters have physical education daily. In 1964, 90 percent of all 10th graders had PE; today only 69 percent have it. Part of the problem is that the federal government has reduced funding, which causes the states to cut back. When budgets are cut, physical education is the first thing to go. San Diego used to have after-school PE programs. Now they have none.

Why aren't youngsters naturally active?

When I went to high school, I had to walk. Now kids are driven there by parents or neighbors, or they own cars. If not, there's always the bus. Kids will wait a half hour for a bus when they can walk the distance in 15 minutes.

What do kids do with their free time?

Their No. 1 activity is watching TV, which they do three to four out-of-school hours a day. No. 2 is listening to the radio. No. 3 is sitting—whether riding in a car or watching a movie.

Aren't millions of kids fans of pro sports?

The more inactive you become, the more you like to visualize yourself in an active role: high-jumping, catching a TD pass, hitting a home run, making a basket. So you go to the stadium or watch TV, eat popcorn and sit. The worse the condition you get in, the less you want to do.

What are the long-term consequences?

If you don't learn fitness in youth, you'll never learn it as an adult. I also maintain—and I told this to the First Lady—that part of the drug and alcohol problem among American youth is a result of reduced physical education in the schools. I know this by my own coaching experience. The more free time I gave my players, the more they dissipated their time. If you give youngsters free time, do you think they're going to fill it doing push-ups? They're going to smoke, drink, do drugs.

Why can't the schools restore their phys ed programs?

They don't have the money or the leadership to get volunteers involved. In L.A. they have the finest facilities, but as of right now they've actually had to lock playground gates and close tennis courts because they don't have enough instructors.

What can parents do?

The best thing parents can do is set a good example by not being overweight, not smoking, not drinking and by working out regularly. That's the best leadership there is. Parents can't force children, but you can motivate them. You may have to provide money and transportation for your kids to take part in physical activity, whether it is soccer, swimming, track or football. The secret is to make exercise a habit. Youngsters have to be active in a club an hour a day for at least three days a week; five would be better.

What is the President's Council doing about improving youth fitness?

I've asked President Reagan to call a White House symposium on youth fitness in May. The President is going to enlist the support of top business corporations. That's been the President's platform all along: funding by the private sector and volunteerism.

Why doesn't the federal government sponsor a national fitness program?

Because in America, education is a state responsibility, determined by state legislatures and boards and local school districts. I have proposed that we create a U.S. Fitness Academy devoted strictly to fitness, diet and nutrition. We are the only major country that doesn't have one. We already have a 200-acre site funded by the private sector at Laguna Niguel, Calif. I've targeted completion before the end of President Reagan's term.

What about grass-roots programs?

For city kids, you have to find community programs like those run by the YMCA. In the suburbs there are Little League and Pop Warner football all over the place. The key is good grownup volunteers. You have to pitch in, volunteer to be a manager, a coach, drive the kids. We can't afford to hire these people anymore.

Can volunteers make a difference?

You bet. My son George coached a football team in Charlottesville, Va. to help a group of kids who were in trouble. They played eight or nine games and won the championship. That's an experience you can't beat. It's wonderful for the adult who coaches them. But more adults should reach out to help. Because for the kids that is the Superbowl.

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