Study: Children Spend Less Time Outdoors

Published May 1, 2009

As obesity among American children climbs, participation in outdoor activities appears to be declining, according to a report by the Outdoor Foundation, a Boulder, Colorado-based nonprofit organization.

The organization’s study found outdoor activity among children ages 6 to 17 declined 11 percent in 2008, with the sharpest fall taking place among 6- to 12-year-olds.

The most recent survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracked obesity trends from 2003 to 2006, found an increase in “obesity and overweight” levels of just under 2 percentage points in the same cohort.

‘Change in Culture’ Found

The “2008 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report” solicited online responses from 60,000 participants between the ages of 6 and 17.

The study counted more than a hundred outdoor activities, including skateboarding, hiking, walking, paddling, and biking. It emphasized outdoor pursuits that can be enjoyed alone or in a group, as opposed to structured team sports. What it found surprised some experts.

“The study’s results indicate not only less activity in children but also a change in culture,” said William Kull, president of the Red Apple Foundation, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit dealing with childhood obesity and childhood stress.

“The inactivity—particularly of outside, large-muscle, physical activities—is being replaced by other things,” Kull said. “It’s not like kids who are inactive are sleeping all the time. But it’s a lot more sedentary activity, like watching TV or playing [on a] computer. That is a double whammy because not only are they not getting the large muscle activity that they used to get when they were outside playing all the time, they’re doing something else, and that’s a cultural thing, not just a physical thing.”

Reverse of Adult Trend

“This study revealed that although overall participation in outdoor activities is rising year after year, children’s participation is declining,” said Chris Fanning, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation. “This means parents and role models must start sharing their love of the outdoors with children.”

Kull agreed, saying, “Parents and role models play the most important part in making children love the outdoors. Educators can make a difference as well; the most important thing is that those influencing children make exercise and outdoor activity fun.”

“Our study also shows outdoor recreation participation is more sustainable as people age,” Fanning said. “Youth are more likely to continue and engage in outdoor recreation than in team sports. That’s important as we as a nation think about health care costs.

“By instilling a love for outdoor recreation in youth, parents and role models not only help their children immediately but also set a long-term precedent for a healthy life,” Fanning said. “The decrease in outdoor activity has accompanied an increase in obesity, ADHD, and depression. Outdoor recreation has been shown to improve achievements both in education and in health.”

Mandates Unnecessary

Kull said government’s role should not be to impose mandates. “A [legislative] effort similar to the anti-smoking campaigns, which generates awareness about obesity and outdoor activity, could help shift youth culture off the sofa and back outdoors,” Kull said, “But legislation certainly can’t do everything.

“That’s unfortunately a politician’s way or government’s way,” Kull added. “They think they’ll just make a rule and people will fall in line. That’s not the way it works. You have to motivate people, and that’s a tougher challenge.”

Fun Is Key

“Children are motivated to go outside when it’s fun,” observed Kull.

Fanning agreed, saying “schools should focus less on jumping jacks and sit-ups—which are certainly not fun. Kids are outside because it is fun, not necessarily because it’s good for them. The fun habituates them to a healthier long-term lifestyle.”

Fanning says privately supported youth programs have been especially useful in drawing children from minority or underserved communities and helping reintroduce children to outdoor activities.

“Our research shows that youth programs like YMCA or Girls and Boys Clubs are some of the most common ways children get into outdoor activities and improve their mental and physical health,” Fanning said.

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.

For more information …

“Outdoor Recreation Participation Report 2008,” The Outdoor Foundation: