How inactive are today’s kids?

I was hoping to not begin this post with the following phrase, but its useless fighting the urge. I have reached an age at which I believe I am now entitled to do so.

Back in my day, when I was still in elementary school, I don’t think my parents or those of my friends ever had to worry about us being physically inactive.

Sure we had Nintendo, and Super Nintendo had just come out, but really how many hours could one spend with Duck Hunt?

At the same time, it feels like people were generally less frightened of letting their children play outdoors. I was basically always outside.

I spent entire summers playing manhunt with my friends – a game which consisted of basically running and hiding for hours on end. I wish I could still play manhunt – most fun exercise of my life.

But I digress.

Needless to say, when I was a kid, I was inactive for a very small fraction of my time. The same was true of all my friends.

Fast-forward some 20 years later, and where do we find the youth of today?

Too often, not moving, according to a recent study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise by Tudor-Locke et al. (senior author of the study, Peter Katzmarzyk, was a professor which taught both Travis and me in grad school).

Briefly, the authors used data from the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey which included accelerometer data measuring the number of steps taken by children (ages 6-11) and youth (ages 12-19) in the US.

Their analysis included a total of 2610 children and youth.

Now before we get into the results, to put everything in perspective, current guidelines in adults suggest getting a minimum of 10,000 steps per day.

The study found that US children average around 13,000 steps for boys and 12,000 for the girls, meanwhile the values for male and female youth are 11,000 and 9,000.

So that looks promising, right?

Well, apparently there is a bit of a caveat with the methodology in the study in terms of the accelerometer used to measure steps. It turns out, as the authors describe, the accelerometers used are apparently a bit liberal with the number of steps they count.

Thus, in a secondary analysis, the authors reanalyzed the accelerometer data, this time censoring or removing the low activity data that was unlikely to be a real step, hoping to get a more accurate picture of actual activity patterns.

When this was done, the average number of steps in each group fell by about 2600 steps.

The end result: almost 42% of US male children and almost 21% of female children were found to be sedentary when compared directly against sex-specific scales designed to rank pedometer-determined physical activity.

Since no such scales are available for youth, we don’t really know where this groups stands.

More than anything else, this study should act as another reminder to encourage your kids to go outside and play. It is a testament to our current state that I seem to always over-react when I see kids just playing outside – it has become such a rare sighting.


TUDOR-LOCKE, C., JOHNSON, W., & KATZMARZYK, P. (2010). Accelerometer-Determined Steps per Day in US Children and Youth Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 42 (12), 2244-2250 DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181e32d7f

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6 Responses to How inactive are today’s kids?

  1. Manhunt! That game was awesome. We’d play it on camping trips and laugh at our “battle wounds,” most often inflicted via running face-first into a tree branch. Sprinting was never so much fun.

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  3. Ken Leebow says:

    I just receive this email from my local nature center. It then referenced your site ( for additional information.

    This was the email . . .

    In our last email we discussed the importance of a physical connection to the natural world in the quest for personal knowledge and experience. This connection serves many purposes, and not just for the intellectual part of our lives.

    According to the Center for Disease control here in Atlanta, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008. The prevalence of obesity among adolescents aged 12 to 19 years increased from 5.0% to 18.1%.

    The statistics behind this are genuinely frightening and point towards a huge health crisis. “Obese youth,” says the CDC, “are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. In a population-based sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, 70% of obese youth had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.”

    While there are many causes behind this trend, one of them is surely the fact that so many children have lost any connection to the natural world. They are inside and on a couch rather than out walking, running, or playing. Here at the Chattahoochee Nature Center we are working hard to restore this important connection and to show everyone, young and old, that there is more to life than being indoors.

    Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods has been a big inspiration to the educational work that we do here at CNC. He recently spoke at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference about the problem of childhood obesity and what can be done to help.

    “More than three decades ago, when Dr. Mary Brown’s children were growing up in Bend, Oregon (she describes it as a city at the base of the Cascade Mountains with a world class fly-fishing river running through it and where the sun shines over 300 days a year), it never occurred to her that much of her practice as a pediatrician would one day be so focused on childhood obesity and depression.

    These maladies, as she described them in an e-mail to me a few days ago, are the ones “that happen when kids move inside and interact with their video games and computers instead of outside playing with each other and using their imaginations.” She continued, “Just this week I saw a teenager who attempted suicide, who had no friends, no activities, and no ideas about how to change her life. Her life had been moving from place to place with nothing but a computer for a friend. A month, ago I saw a 13-year-old boy who weighed over 300 pounds who told me if he didn’t have his video games he would have no reason to live.” She added, “Last weekend it was 75 degrees and sunny and I went for a long walk though several neighborhoods that were safe, with open spaces and endless opportunities for outdoor activities and I was not able to find one child outside looking for lizards, butterflies or playing with other kids.”

    The disconnect with the outdoors, especially the natural world, is, she says, “one of the core reasons for so many of the physical and mental problems that have changed the practice of pediatrics over the last 20 years.”

    To read the entire speech and find out what we can do, click here.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    When I was growing up, I too had a lot of time outdoors, unsupervised, running around with other kids. This is no longer true. Everyone is so scared to let the kids play outside; I am no different. I don’t know how real the danger of abduction is, but I certainly am not willing to test it on my child. People generally feel unsafe, much more so than 20 or 30 years ago.
    As for kids being sedentary, the problem stems from the fact that now every outing has to be accompanied by parents and there simply isn’t enough time for that…

  6. Where is the evidence that parents hold their children back from playing outside? Neither I nor any parents I know try to keep our children inside. However, we’re all fairly healthy people. Where is the evidence that unhealthy peoples’ attitudes about kids playing outside have changed? The only thing I’ve seen that is radically different from when I was a kid is public schools dropping PE programs: testing-oriented education may be to blame.