“What health behavior killed as many people as smoking in 2009?” Dr. Bill Cole, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas’ Health Science Center in Houston, asked a crowd of reporters at the US Open Saturday morning.
The answer: a sedentary lifestyle.
“Physical inactivity is estimated in 2009 to have killed about 5.3 million people in chronic diseases across the world,” he said.
Childhood Obesity Awareness Month kicks off on Sunday, Sept. 1, and for the second year in a row, the USTA held a symposium with fitness and medical professionals at the US Open to discuss the benefits of getting kids started early in participating in sports like tennis to build the foundation for a healthy lifestyle that will help carry them through adulthood.
In a frightening statistic cited by a moving public service video played at the event, entitled “Giving kids their five years back,” this generation of Americans will be the first of the modern era to have a lower life expectancy than their parents by an estimated five years.
“Eighty percent of children around the world are not getting the amount of physical activity that's optimal for health,” Cole said. “If we had anything else that affected eight out of 10 kids around the world, we'd be up in arms, creating changes, creating partnerships, have a strategy. If 80 percent of the world’s kids had measles, we’d certainly be doing something about it.”
There is no panacea for childhood obesity; it’s a pandemic that can only be cured by communities providing playgrounds and sports facilities and equipment for children of all ages, income brackets and interest levels and by encouraging parents to get their kids involved in physical activities.
“I think we all have to think about what we can do individually, as groups, partnerships, to really address this global public health problem,” Cole said. “The start here from making tennis, soccer, baseball, any other youth sport that we can think of, more accessible to more kids more of the time I think is a critical step.”
The USTA has taken a big step in that direction through its youth tennis initiatives, highlighted by 10 and Under Tennis. 10 and Under Tennis sizes the sport right for age and ability, with the goal of fostering an atmosphere of fun and continual success to keep kids coming back.
“In just one year we've had a 13 percent increase in participation for kids in this age bracket,” said Sue Hunt, Chief Marketing Officer for the USTA, who spoke of the program’s success at the event.
First Lady Michelle Obama has made bringing sports, physical activity and teaching kids how to lead a healthy lifestyle her top priority through her Let’s Move! initiative, which the USTA has been deeply involved in. As part of Let’s Move! and the USTA’s mission to bring tennis sized right to kids throughout the U.S., the organization will donate 5,000 more kid-sized tennis courts around the country and has committed to bringing 300,000 more children to the sport of tennis.
Dr. Alexis Colvin, Chief Medical Officer of the USTA and US Open and Assistant Professor of Sports Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, stresses that part of combatting childhood obesity is to approach physical activity in a way that makes it enjoyable for kids.
“They're different from adults physically, emotionally, physiologically and emotionally. Sports should be tailored for a child, not for a little adult,” she said. “Play is the work of children. We know the primary reason kids are going to play sports is because it's fun. If a child has fun playing sports, they'll continue to do so.”
Bob Harper, fitness expert and "The Biggest Loser" star trainer, who has also been one of the most vocal supporters of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign, agrees. He stresses that the key to getting kids engaged in sports at a young age is to remove all trace of competition.
“Some kids I worked with on my show last season thought that playing tennis was all about the competition. That's what they were conditioned to believe,” he said. “Eventually if they get involved in the sport - whatever that sport may be, in this case tennis - then they can just start taking it to that level. But I don't really like to introduce the competitive element in any kind of sport activity with kids in the beginning.”
Following the symposium, Harper took to Court 6 on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to run a youth clinic with some local kids new to the sport.
“Tennis is a sport that is so easily accessible now,” Harper said. “There are courts everywhere and a lot of places are giving free court times for kids. I’m a huge fan of tennis. To get kids out there at an early age will help them get active and keep them active for the rest of their lives.”
Tennis is a sport that can be played by the whole family; it’s a team sport, and an individual sport, and it’s a sport that people play throughout their lives. Whereas many team sports start and end with a kids’ career as a student, tennis is a sport for a lifetime.
Whether you are an educator or a parent, log on to youthtennis.com to learn about how to incorporate 10 and Under Tennis at your facility, or find out about free play days in your community.