Most would agree that investing in the youth means investing in the future. Part of this investment involves their health and well-being, which if maximised, can help kids reach their full potential. Healthy nutrition is a key component of health and well-being for children and adolescents, but it goes hand-in-hand with some other health behaviours, including physical activity, screen time and sleep.
Physical activity plays a vital role in children’s health and well-being, and has a wide range of benefits for not only their physical health – helping to maintain a healthy weight and reducing risk for lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease – but for their mental health as well. Kids who are more physically active have been shown to have better self-esteem; less stress, anxiety and depression; and improved cognitive and academic outcomes.
Physical activity is not just sport and physical education at school, but includes other activities like walking (for example, to school, or on a family outing) and active play. Research consistently shows that children who spend more time outdoors are more physically active, so whenever possible, encourage kids to be outside rather than inside. The evidence also shows that children who are more active when they are young stay active through childhood and into adolescence, and often into adulthood as well. So it is important to get kids active early, so they can enjoy the benefits later in life as well.
THE LURE OF THE SCREEN
In contrast to the benefits of physical activity, lots of time in front of screens has been shown to have a number of negative consequences for kids, which is a sobering thought in this era of ubiquitous screen-based technology. Research shows that kids who spend more time on screens will be more likely to be overweight, and have unhealthy eating behaviours, such as eating less fruit and vegetables, consuming more fast food and fizzy drinks, and skipping breakfast.
Kids with higher levels of screen time are also more likely to score more poorly in things related to their cognitive development and academic performance, including attention, maths scores, reading and language comprehension. High screen time is also associated with a wide range of unpleasant mental health outcomes amongst children and adolescents: increased anxiety, social dysfunction and depression; low self-esteem; school disconnectedness; unfavourable behavioural conduct; and difficulties connecting with parents and peers. One study even showed that kids who, after spending only 5 days away from all forms of screens, were better able to read facial expressions than kids who had 5 days of their usual exposure to screens at school and at home.
GETTING ENOUGH Z’S
The importance of sleep for the health and well-being of kids is becoming an increasingly hot topic in research, and has been shown to be associated with healthier weight, better emotional regulation, academic achievement, and improved quality of life for youth. Lack of sleep is particularly detrimental to adolescents, and inadequate sleep in this age group has been linked to higher levels of depression, anxiety and pain; low self-esteem, social support and life satisfaction; decreased academic achievement; a greater chance of engaging in future risky behaviour; as well as attention difficulties, withdrawal, tiredness, and aggression. Screen time is a sleep thief – it not only takes up sleep time, but it also displaces behaviours that help with sleep, such as physical activity, and it exposes kids to artificial light that negatively affects their body’s sleep system.
SO WHAT IS RECOMMENDED?
Children who are of school-going age (6-18 years) should be getting at least 1 hour of physical activity every day in order to realise these benefits. This should include activity that is intense enough to get them to sweat and breathe hard, although activity of a lighter intensity is also good for them if it means less time sitting. Younger children (3-6 years) should be active for at least 3 hours per day, and this can be activity of any intensity.
The general limit for daily screen time is not more than 2 hours per day for school-going children, while some recommend not more than 1 hour for preschool children. For children under 2 years, the advice is NO screen time at all. Similar to physical activity, screen time behaviours tend to stick from childhood into adolescence and adults, so limiting these behaviours from an early age is essential.
While there are a number of different recommendations for kids’ sleep, the guidelines are generally around 10-13 hours of sleep per night for 3-6 year olds, 9-11 hours for 6-13 year olds, and 8-10 hours for 14-17 year olds.
All of these health behaviours, along with a healthy diet, help to set kids up for a future in which they are physically and mentally healthy, emotionally and socially adjusted, and prepared to do well at school. Sounds like a bright future, don’t you think?