The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children and adolescents engage in an hour or more of physical activity daily to improve their cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength and reduce their chance of developing chronic health problems in adulthood.

Virginia Cooperative Extension offers advice and a number of programs to help youth meet their health and fitness goals.

Jay Williams, professor of human nutrition, foods and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, suggests youth sports programs as one way for parents to promote physical activity among their children.

“Those who play youth sports tend to be more physically fit and have a lower obesity rate than those who don’t,” Williams said. “Interestingly enough, youth in these programs also tend to be less likely to smoke, less likely to use drugs, and more likely to wear seatbelts.”

Williams points to recent research on the lasting health benefits of youth sports.

“Adults who once participated in youth sports tend to be more physically active today and have a lower risk for chronic health problems, even if they do not currently lead an active lifestyle,” Williams said. “The ideal would be to encourage youth to participate in some sort of physical activity at the elementary age and in an organized sports program at the middle school and high school age.”

Whether or not youth participate in organized sports, engaging in some sort of physical activity on most days of the week will improve their fitness and lower their risk for chronic health problems. Extension has a number of programs that encourage children and adolescents to exercise.

Jill Garth, family and consumer sciences Extension agent in Orange County, taught local youth in her community the value of daily exercise through FIT Extension, an eight-week program that motivates participants to engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week.

“We partnered with the local schools and enrolled 150 children and teens from Orange County in FIT Extension last year,” Garth said. “Together they walked more than 40,000 miles.”

Open to youth and adults, FIT Extension encourages six-person teams to engage in enough combined physical activity to equate to walking 480 miles – the length of Virginia.

A number of other Extension programs also have physical activity components. Designed to combat obesity among children and adolescents in local schools, the Families, Food, and Fun after-school program brings families together to learn about good nutrition, regular exercise, and the ABCs of cooking. Youth in the program have demonstrated a 40 percent increase in their awareness of the importance of physical activity.

Likewise, the Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids curriculum teaches more than 10,000 young Virginians positive attitudes and healthy behaviors regarding diet, exercise, and body image every year. The program incorporates physical activity and movement into each of its key program areas.

Your local Extension office can direct you to more information about nutrition and exercise topics.

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