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Less physical activity
In Scandinavia, as in most other industrialised countries, young people's everyday life is gradually mechanised and urbanised. More and more time is spent on indoor activities. As an example, 72 percent of all Norwegian teenage girls report that their favourite hobby is shopping. Young people's leisure time is spent in shopping malls, snack bars, in front of computergames, Internet chats, and television screens.
An average young man that graduate from highschool in the USA has spent 12000 hours at school and 19000 hours in front of a television/video screen. The distance between our different arenas is increasingly spent on wheels, lifts, and escalators. Many traditional physical activities are replaced by technical inventions. The New Scientist recently commented on the modern life style and its effect on people's health. As an example, the journal refers to English researchers who have calculated that the average use of a mobile phone saves us from walking 16 kilometers every year.
The normal situation of a Norwegian child at the end of the millennium is to enter kindergarten at the age of 3. The kindergarten offers little space for a variety of physical play. Much of the time is spent indoors on a flat floor, or on pillows, or on chairs. We have registered a setback in motor skills among pre-school children. In Scandinavia we also have a number of kindergartens where the kids spend all day out in the nature, in the woods, or at the seaside. These children have far better motor skills, they have better ability to concentrate, they observe visually better - which makes them safer along the roads, and generally they are in better health conditions. Even the teachers in these kindergartens are in better health than their colleagues in traditional kindergartens.
Traditionally, Norwegian school children walk to school every day. Only primary school pupils living more than 4 kilometers away from school are entitled to bus transportation. Today the situation is different. In most schools, about 50 percent of the pupils are taken regularly to and from school by car, either by parents or by neighbours. The percentage is higher among 6 year-olds, and lower among older pupils. This happens in spite of a major effort in many local communities to build separate roads for pedestrians and bikers, safe from the increasing car traffic.
Another aspect of this tendency is not to walk to school when the weather is cold, wet or windy. My own study indicates that students today are less tolerant to bad weather and have less ability to cope with physical strains than 10 to 15 years ago. Teachers taking students into woodlands and mountains complain about their lack of experience with outdoor life. They have far less knowledge about animals, plants, and nature in general than the students of the same age had a few years ago.
Traditionally, children and young people in Norway spent a lot of time on physical play, sports, and games. Today about 80 percent of all 10 to 11 year-old children in Norway take part in organised sport activities. The time spent on traditional physical play seems to be declining. At the age of 13, about 60 percent of the boys and 50 percent of the girls take part in organized sport activities. The figures go dramatically down as they grow older. The number of young people that never or very seldom play sports is increasing dramatically from the age of 15 to the age of 24. A recently published Norwegian study shows that only 47 percent of all young people aged 20 to 24 year-olds are doing physical training of any kind every 14 days or more.
A WHO study reveals that, among five-thousand 15 year-old students in Norway, 65 percent of the girls and 71 percent of the boys do physical exercise at least two times a week. However, the same study shows that 1 out of 5 is active in physical exercise of any kind less than an hour a week. The tendency is that one group of young people are especially active in sports and all other kinds of physical activities. On the other hand, we find an increasing number of young people that are almost completely physically inactive.
A statistics in the USA has reported that less than 10 percent of the US adult population engage in regular, vigorous physical activity more than 20 minutes per day, and 3 days per week. The tendency towards a more physically inactive lifestyle is very visible among students in the USA. In 1991 42 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 enrolled in daily physical education. In 1995 the similar figure was 25 percent. Among 9th grade students 80 percent of the boys and 62 percent of the girls reported of physical activities for 20 minutes or more at least 3 days a week. Among 12th graders the similar figures were 67 percent among boys and only 42 percent among girls. The American Healthy People 2010 aims to increase the proportion of physical actives at this level to at least 85 percent of all young people in grades 9 through 12.
In Norway military service is obligatory for all boys. To be enrolled in the military forces you have to keep up to a certain physical standard. Today 20 percent of Norwegian young boys are not taken into military service because of poor physical skills. An increasing number of young boys within the military service fail to pass certain physical tests. From the Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education, it is reported that more and more students fail to enter because they do not pass the standard physical tests.
The decline in young people's physical activities happens at the same time as they are presented to extreme body ideals through television programmes like Baywatch, and through all kinds videos, movies and magazines. In stead of doing more physical exercise, many young people - especially girls - eat less. One result of this food phobia is high numbers of young people suffering from bulimia and anorexia. This is a serious health problem today in many countries. In spite of massive anti tobacco campaigns, 36 percent of all 18-year-old girls in Norway smoke. Many argue that it is better to smoke than to gain weight. Some girls even argue that they start smoking marihuana to lose appetite.
The modern physically lazy lifestyle has many unwanted consequences. Studies from all over Western Europe shows the same tendencies. In spite of a decrease in daily consume of calories, young people are gaining weight. The new lifestyle combined with a less healthy diet may create very high costs to the future society.
Increased physical activity may prevent high blood pressure. The risk of death due to heart disease has doubled among the physically inactive, even after adjustment for high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and smoking has been done. In Scandinavia today we have more young people at risk for getting heart diseases than ever before. A result of the new life style is also an increase of certain types of cancer (e.g., Colon Cancer), and a dramatic increase in the number of diabetes II cases. Diabetes II is a disease normally associated with overweight elderly people. In Scandinavia today this disease is soon the most serious threat to people's health. Young people, even adolescents are getting diabetes II due to overweight and little physical exercise.
Studies show that as many as one out of five students in secondary school, and one out of ten in primary school need treatment because of pains in their neck, shoulders, and back. The reason for this suffering is normally too little physical activity. This kind of diseases costs the Norwegian society of 4 million people around 20 billion Norwegian kroner a year.
Norway has for many years had relatively high suicide rates among young people. From schools and clinics we regularly get reports of an increasing number of mentally depressed children and youths. Studies show that increased physical activity reduces the risk of depression.
Breakfast with bread, cheese and milk has a long been a tradition in Norwegian families. It has been looked upon as the most important meal of the day. Today we know that 1 out of 5 children go to school without eating any food in the morning. Many of them come from families where one hardly finds bread at home. This is a result of a busy and modern life-style that the family rarely eats breakfast, and many children do not bring food to school. Instead, they buy potato chips, chocolate, and sweet drinks.
At the age of 19, Norwegian young people in average eat fruit and vegetables only 3 times a week. Norwegian authorities recommend eating fruit and vegetables five times a day. We know that the more fruit and vegetables you eat as a child, the more you eat as an adult. The modern life-style among young people lead to more junk- food and fast food and less traditional and valuable food like fish, fruit and vegetables. We need a major change in the modern diet among children and youth to prevent a dramatic increase in heart diseases and a number of cancer varieties. Norwegian authorities recommend an increase to 65 percent in the average consumption of fruit and vegetables. That figure is also supported by the World Cancer Research Fund in their 1997 report "Food, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer: a global perspective." According to a Norwegian estimate, this change in nutrition would lead to a decrease of cancer on the lip, tongue, throat, oesophagus, and stomach with more than 50 percent, and a decrease of cancer in rectum and pancreas with 40 percent.
Modern families tend to skip common meals. Food is taken in a hurry in the kitchen, at a snack bar, or in the office. Regular meals, healthy food, and time spent at the table are important to our health and total well being. In many industrialised countries we find that the modern lifestyle is destroying what we have spent the whole century to build: Better nutrition and a healthy life for all.
The situation described above is typical for most industrialised countries. We even find it emerging among upper and middle class people in developing countries. It is necessary with extensive national and international programmes to promote a major change. Young people must learn about the consequences of a physically inactive lifestyle. We have to reintroduce physical activities in people's everyday lives. All students should have physical activities on their daily agenda, and we should promote everyday activities like biking instead of using the car, and taking the stairs instead of the lift. In urban planning we should always remember to leave space for playgrounds for children, for sport grounds and open areas for all young peoples unorganised outdoor activities.
It is necessary that public authorities carefully follow the development of young people's nutrition. Promotion of healthy food with more fruit and vegetables in schools is an important supplement to what many kids experience at home. Public campaigns should inspire the growing fast-food business to create meals of a higher nutritional value.
The human costs of not to intervene in these areas could be dramatic. The financial costs by having increasing numbers of dead and severely handicapped people because of an unwanted lifestyle will go beyond any imagination.