Overprotective parents partly to blame for children’s lack of fitness, academic says

Parents’ focus on academics, worries over ‘risky’ sport among reasons why Asian children lagging behind Western peers in healthy lifestyle survey, professor says

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 December, 2013, 10:11am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 2:38pm

Overly protective parents are partly to blame for the decline in physical fitness of Hong Kong children, who, according to a recent international study, are only half as fit as their peers in the West.

“Swimming, cycling and running are good aerobic exercises, but many Hong Kong schoolchildren just do not do them,” said Dr Lobo Louie Hung-tak, an associate professor at Baptist University’s department of physical education.

“Some parents consider swimming dangerous. Thus, many schools do not have swimming lessons to avoid receiving complaints from the parents,” he said.

Louie said parents often preferred their children to engage in “structured activities”.

“They may arrange for their children to play music and the like, because these could build up their portfolios and help them get into good schools,” he said.

A study by a team of academics from the University of South Australia on the cardiovascular fitness of children (aged between nine and 17) showed that youth today were, on average, 15 per cent less fit than their counterparts between 1970 and 2010.

Some parents consider swimming dangerous. Thus, many schools do not have swimming lessons
Dr Lobo Louie, professor

The decline in fitness was twice as much for Asian children, who were 30 per cent worse off than their peers in the 30-year period.

The research, presented last month at an American Heart Association conference in the United States, analysed 50 studies from 28 countries on the running fitness of some 25 million children.

The studies measured how fast and far the children could run in five to 15 minutes.

It found that, on average, it took today’s children 90 seconds longer to run about 1.6 kilometres than their counterparts did 30 years ago. The decline was observed in boys and girls across all ages.

The research’s lead author, Dr Grant Tomkinson, said the findings were worrying as they could indicate poorer health in adulthood. Obesity and lifestyle were contributing factors, he said.

“[The children] have the capacity to do it, but they’re less accustomed to pushing themselves at a vigorous intensity for a long period of time,” he told BBC programme Health Check.

He recommended for children to get an hour’s worth of moderately vigorous activities accumulated over the course of each day.

Baptist University’s Louie echoed Tomkinson’s views, but said: “Young people nowadays aren’t getting enough opportunities to [exercise]. Many parents don’t like their children to do sports, considering them a waste of time.”

He cited recent surveys conducted by his department, which found that 20 per cent of secondary school pupils did not know how to ride a bicycle and 47 per cent did not know how to swim.

“Young people can be fit in different ways. They can be skilful, like a tennis player. But not all types of fitness relate well to health,” Louie said.

“The most important is cardiovascular fitness, which is the ability to exercise vigorously for a long time.

“You don’t have to aim to be an Olympic star to do sports. Parents should help inspire children to develop fitness habits. Children can choose whatever activities they like.”

According to Hong Kong’s Department of Health, which has tracked obesity among primary school pupils since the 2009, the rate in the last academic year was 20.9 per cent. This was slightly less than the 21.4 per cent recorded last year-this year academic year, and 22.2 per cent the period before that.