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Only 12% of High School Students Get Enough Exercise

About one in 10 high school students gets the recommended amount of aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise, and nearly a quarter of students drink at least one sugary soda every day.

June 16, 2011 -- Two new reports provide a snapshot of the physical activity and beverage habits of U.S. high school students. About one in 10 high school students gets the recommended amount of aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise, and nearly a quarter of students drink at least one sugary soda every day.

Both reports, which appear in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, analyzed data from the 2010 National Youth Physical Activity and Nutrition Study that looks at the height/weight, diet, and exercise habits of high school students.

In the physical activity study, 12.2% of high school students met the Healthy People 2020 objective for aerobic and muscle-strengthening physical activity, which calls for 60 or more minutes of aerobic activity every day and some muscle strengthening on three or more days per week. Healthy People 2020 sets 10-year national goals for improving the health of Americans.

Room for Improvement

More high schoolers met the muscle-strengthening objective than the aerobic activity objective, the study showed.  Specifically, 15.3% of high school students met the aerobic activity objective.  Healthy People 2020 aims for this number to reach 20.2%. Fifty-one percent met the goal for muscle-strengthening activity. The specific target for muscle-strengthening activity is not yet available.

The students at greatest risk for inactivity were female, obese, and upper classmen, the study showed.

“Continued efforts through multi-sectoral approaches involving schools, communities, and health care are needed to increase youth physical activity participation,” study author MinKyoung Song, PhD, of the CDC’s division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, says in an email. “For example, making our communities more physical activity-friendly by providing sidewalks/bike trails so kids can walk/bike to school or providing easier access to recreational facilities or places for physical activity will be helpful.”

Soda Intake Too High

In the beverage study, 72.4% of high school students reported drinking at least one serving of water each day in the week before the survey, 42% had one or more glasses of milk, and 30.2% drank at least one serving of 100% fruit juice every day.

But 24.3% drank at least one serving of regular soda each day, 16.1% drank a sports drink each day, and just shy of 17% had another sugar-sweetened beverage, such as lemonade, sweetened tea, coffee drinks, or flavored milk every day, the study showed.

But “sugar-sweetened beverages are a staple for a quarter, and potentially more, of the teens surveyed,” says Connie Diekman, RD, the director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. “This intake could be contributing too many empty calories, displacing other more important nutrients found in beverages like milk, and it could represent the beginning of a food habit that will continue into adulthood.”

Helping teens switch to more nutrient-dense foods like milk is an important part of teaching healthy eating, she says.

Dana Greene, RD, a nutritionist on Brookline, Mass., says that taken together, the two studies provide a roadmap for improving the health and well-being of adolescents. “We need to look at calories in and calories out,” she says. “Children and teens need to be encouraged to exercise more and consume fewer empty calories, including sugary sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages.”

These efforts must go hand-in-hand to truly be effective, she says. “Lowing the rate and risk of childhood obesity must be a national priority.”

“We are seeing obesity-related diseases that were formerly only diagnosed in adults in children. The gravity of the situation has hit home,” she says. “Slowly but surely, we are making inroads.”

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