the benefits of sports begin in childhood and extend throughout life

Health, “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being,” according to the World Health Organization, is the most precious commodity. Since it is a prerequisite for almost all human activities, it is a fundamental human right.

But there are many misconceptions about and what can be done to preserve it. Adults often think that they alone are responsible for their health… Wrongly! Its proper construction and preservation actually takes place throughout life.

Indeed, at any age, health is the result of subtle and complex interactions between genetic, epigenetic, environmental and behavioral factors. We invite you to discover some of them that underline the fundamental role of sport, especially for children.

Health is made up of embryonic life

It is now accepted that the fetal period and early childhood (the famous “first thousand days”) are crucial periods for the successful development of the future adult.

Many epidemiological studies have revealed the role of the early environment (physical, chemical, nutritional or psychosocial) on immediate health, as well as on the future. It even spawned a new branch of medicine, DOHaD (“Developmental Origins of Health and disease”).

For example, the exposure of a pregnant woman to toxic substances that are consumed at will (alcohol, tobacco, etc.) , even after the first generation.

Early childhood, the cornerstone of health capital

Childhood, from prenatal development to age eight, is the most critical. This is because this early development (physical, social, emotional, linguistic and cognitive aspects) has a major impact on basic learning, academic performance, economic participation, social inclusion and health.

WHO recommendations emphasize the defining role of diet, sleep and physical activity. Although universal, they do not apply equally sharply according to the human development index (life expectancy at birth, education level, etc.) of the countries.

In France and in the developed countries, since the 1950s and 1960s, the lifestyle of children and adolescents, modeled on that of their parents, has become increasingly inactive. The challenge now is to counter this trend and re-emphasize the energy balance (caloric intake of food versus energy expenditure) of young people.

Food, an important resource for youth health

In France, young people are generally in good health. However, the increase, which has been constant for decades, in the frequency of childhood overweight and obesity has become a real public health problem.

The recent national epidemiological survey on overweight and obesity, conducted for the League against Obesity (Obépi-Roche 2020 study), quantifies the magnitude of the problem: in children aged 2 to 7 years, 34% are overweight and 18% obese, while in the next age group (8 to 17 years), 21% are overweight and 6% obese.

It should be noted that obesity is unevenly distributed in this latter age group: 57% of children have an obese parent, 62% are boys and 75% are from working class and inactive categories (workers, workers, unemployed, men/housewives, etc. ), ie 9 points more than in total.

Physical activity, the main lever in decline

Although young people are still the most active age group in our country, their activity level remains inadequate. Physical education and sports (EPS) classes at school and leisure activities are not enough to compensate for the decrease in general activity in daily life.

Thus, in 2008, Jean-François Toussaint’s report revealed that only 50% of young French people achieved the level of physical activity prescribed in the National Health Nutrition Program (PNNS). The recent Esteban survey, conducted over the period 2014-2016, unfortunately confirms this data. Of the children aged 6 to 17, only 51% of boys and 33% of girls met WHO recommendations.

These global data obscure strong differences as 40 to 60% of young people do not engage in physical activities other than the compulsory physical activities.

In addition, girls have significantly lower levels of physical exercise than boys from an early age. This difference appears from 4 years of age, is found at 9-10 years and persists into adolescence. Girls’ activity level declines with age, regardless of their level of physical involvement (active, moderately active, or inactive).

The reasons for the increase in the sedentary lifestyle

Our industrialized societies are therefore very strongly influenced by a sedentary lifestyle. This corresponds to a state in which the movements are greatly reduced with an energy consumption close to that of rest. These are the tertiarization of jobs, the increase in passive travel and the rise of digital technology.

Our children spend way too much time in front of screens (2h30 to 5h/day). This time of physical inactivity reduces by the same amount the time that should be spent exercising, which should be (at least 60 minutes per day for 5-17 year olds).

Even worse, a study conducted by Assurance Prévention shows that sedentary activities increased during the first containment of the health crisis of 2020. So they represented 33.3 hours per week, compared to 22.6 earlier – an increase of almost 50%.

The benefits of sport for young people

In adults, at the same increase in volume or intensity of physical activity, we see that the health benefit is greater in inactive and moderately active individuals than in athletes.

This “dose-response” relationship has not been so clearly established in healthy children and adolescents. This is due to the fact that these children are already in good health and that longitudinal studies (based on monitoring a population or a phenomenon over time) are difficult to perform on young populations. However, it is recognized that an active lifestyle during childhood and adolescence promotes the expression of an active lifestyle in adults.

Physical activity during growth also has positive effects on health throughout life: bone strengthening, muscular and cardiorespiratory endurance, agility, balance, flexibility, etc. Conversely, the “hollow” analyzes show that the inactivity of young people contributes greatly to overweight and obesity, factors that in themselves are terribly harmful to health. An observation that the Anglo-Saxons summarize with the maxim “Play now or pay later”.

Finally, the health benefits of young people with certain pathologies (obesity, metabolic syndrome, essential hypertension, anxiety, depression, certain cancers, etc.) have now been proven.

Youth Physical Potential: Fighting Parents’ Misconceptions

To restore the freedom of movement of our children, it is first necessary to know their capacities and their real physical limits. Too many barriers to sports are based on unfounded beliefs.

It’s wonderfully counter-intuitive, but our kids are physiologically elite athletes! For example, an 8-year-old child’s aerobic endurance (estimated by VO₂max) is greater than the ability he will have in late adolescence and adulthood.

Children are also more resistant to fatigue and recover more quickly from intensive efforts of short duration. They are not, as has long been said, unsuitable for resistance efforts (mainly “lactic acid”). As a result, physical exercises specifically adapted to their age can only develop their motor skills and their physiological predisposition to physical exertion.

The time for active games or sports is perceived by some parents as time lost for study and therefore an obstacle to academic success. However, a number of studies prove otherwise. Thus, the rise in EPS (or its equivalent abroad) in primary and secondary schools has no negative impact on academic success at worst. But at best, it improves it by increasing the effectiveness of the learning (better attention, more self-esteem, etc.)!

Finally, remember that pleasure is the main driving force behind the practice of physical activity. It is therefore essential to let children (partially) choose a practice that satisfies them rather than impose on them that which pleases the adults who guide them.

Getting everyone moving again: a challenge that is still too neglected

In the end, a high level of activity throughout life, starting in childhood, makes it possible to postpone dependence with age. Physical activity is indeed the key to healthy aging, and the resulting benefits are not only immediate, but to come.

Yet it is surprising that, despite the accumulation of scientific evidence, a large proportion of the population, including young people, remains physically inactive. Nowhere is the gap greater between what we know and what we do.

In France, therefore, one of the greatest public health challenges is to increase the level of physical activity for the entire population, especially young people, that corresponds to their genetic background and is adapted to current health needs and the future. Many physical activity development programs for preschool or school-age children provide specific guidelines on what motor skills to focus on and how to do it, whether by duration, intensity, frequency, or variety.

Everything is known, it would still be necessary to have an interest in it to trade!

This challenge can only be met by strengthening the role of the different actors, especially in the school environment – ​​in particular through games and physical education. But let’s never forget that in matters of upbringing, the family plays the leading role by the example it sets…