GThe challenge of getting kids involved in modern life is daunting. Indoor comforts such as television and air conditioner can make it difficult to keep up with them.
A new scientific review in the journal suggests that heat is another barrier for kids to get enough exercise. TemperatureThe study included more than 150 studies. The study found that children today are 30% less fit to exercise than their parents at the same age. This makes them less able to adapt to extreme temperatures as they get older. “The outside world is becoming more of an extreme environment for humans all over the world,” including children, says study author Shawnda Morrison, a cardiovascular and exercise physiologist, and assistant professor at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. She is also the founder of Active Healthy Kids Slovenia, which conducts research and advocates for children’s physical activity.
Extreme weather events like heat waves have become more common due to climate change. Air quality is also worsening—not just from the pollution caused from burning fossil fuels, but also from climate-change-driven pollen levels and wildfires, the smoke from which can sting the eyes and penetrate deep into people’s lungs. The spread of infectious disease is likely to rise as the animals responsible for spreading pathogens change and expand their territories.
Morrison claims that children are less active due to climate change, and this is a threat to their health. According to a 2018 report included in the review, which compared kids’ activity levels across 49 countries, only 39% (or less) of children in most of those countries were getting adequate physical activity. Globally, the vast majority of children are also not meeting the World Health Organization’s recommendation that kids get at least an hour of moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise a day on average, according to a meta-analysis published in July and included in the review. According to the review, many children became more sedentary in the COVID-19 crisis.
This kickstarts an unhealthy cycle, Morrison says, since children who aren’t in the habit of doing enough physical activity tend not to be active as adults. The consequence is that today’s children are not only “extremely unfit”—“they don’t like to move, either,” she says.
Children like these may not be ready to face a warmer future. Morrison states that those who are physically fit will often be more able and able to endure hotter weather because of their lower core temperatures. Because fitter people tend to have better circulation, their hearts don’t need to work as hard to move their blood around to cool them down. Adults who are not in good health can be at greater risk of developing chronic conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They also have a higher chance of suffering heatstrokes or heart attacks.
Continue reading: Extreme Heat is So Harmful for Your Body
Climate experts also expect extreme events—such as hurricanes, heat waves, wildfires, and droughts—to occur more often and to be more likely to happen at the same time. These types of emergency may be easier to deal with for people who are more fit. “I know that people are uncomfortable in the heat,” Morrison says. “But I think it’s important to stress that this is now a survival situation.”
But childhood is a time to develop healthy habits that can be maintained throughout life. Although many societal factors outside of a family’s control influence a child’s fitness—like living near green space and getting adequate physical education classes at school—Morrison says that parents also help kids build healthy habits by encouraging them to play outside or sometimes choosing more active types of transportation such as biking, walking, or scootering instead of driving.
Morrison states that parents are responsible for keeping their children cool in hot weather. Younger children may not be able to take steps to cool themselves down, which means that it’s up to parents to keep them hydrated or in the shade if they get flushed, seem tired, or show other signs of being too hot.
Still, parents shouldn’t be afraid to take their kids outside when it’s hot. Being outdoors more often can help acclimate kids’ bodies to a warmer environment, which will make them less vulnerable to dangers like heat stroke, Morrison says. In order to make kids more comfortable in heat, she suggests that kids be encouraged to go outside when the temperature starts rising in spring. It is important to take children outside when it is cooler.
Morrison knows that getting kids outside isn’t always easy. Morrison picks up her children, ages three and five years old, from school each day. She then takes them to the park to spend an hour playing. “I know it’s hard for parents, but you really do have to make time to do this, especially with younger children,” she says. “It really has to be built into your day as a priority.”
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