Why it’s so bad that children get too much homework, not enough exercise

Children play at a Sacramento playground in April. Karin Klein says schools should allow more time for exercise for kids’ health now and when they’re older.
Children play at a Sacramento playground in April. Karin Klein says schools should allow more time for exercise for kids’ health now and when they’re older.

When’s the best time to exercise to help slow or stave off osteoporosis, the bone-thinning that occurs in many older people?

When we’re kids.

Shlomit Radom-Aizik, a pediatric exercise researcher at UC Irvine, recently told me that until we’re 23 or 24 is our big chance to build bone mass through running, jumping and other activity with some impact. After that, the best we can hope for is that exercise will maintain what we have.

Just a couple of weeks later, I was interviewing two Alzheimer’s researchers about the close connection between diabetes and dementia. A study out of New York University estimated that if we could eliminate Type 2 diabetes, the number of Alzheimer’s cases could be cut in half. Both of the researchers, at two other universities, agreed that was about right.

“When people ask me, ‘What’s the biggest thing I can do to avoid dementia?’ my answer is ‘exercise,’” said Margaret Gatz, a professor of psychology at USC who has published studies on the connection between diabetes diagnoses in middle age and later Alzheimer’s diagnoses.

Most of us are familiar with other benefits of exercise: strength, heart health, weight maintenance and balance that keeps our bones properly aligned. But as a society, we’re doing almost nothing about it, starting with childhood. It’s just that, like the proverbial frog sitting in the slowly-heating water; we don’t notice it until it’s too late.

Schools have cut back on physical education to create the class time that might improve test scores. Even worse, perhaps, they’ve cut back on recess – the joyous free play that makes kids want to exercise. Meanwhile, teachers hand out so much homework that there’s little time for exercise after school.

For the past five years or so, we’ve been bombarded with the evidence that sitting for prolonged periods is bad for us. And yet we structure not just our own days, but those of our young children and teenagers, around chairs and desks.

California law requires 200 minutes of physical education per two weeks of school through sixth grade — an average of 20 minutes a day. That’s completely inadequate. The state has a new system for school accountability that measures parent involvement, suspension rates, you name it — but nothing about adequate exercise and recess time.

We worry about students’ nutrition, as we should, but the big problem facing them health-wise isn’t whether their pasta is whole-grain or their milk 1 percent fat or 2 percent, but whether they are moving.

True, not all parents do enough to keep their kids active, and electronic devices can be a curse. But where do kids spend most of the day?

If the state wants to avoid a future of sickly Californians – whose health care costs will be enormous – the Legislature and state Board of Education need to start taking this seriously, requiring robust physical activity during the school day, an accountability system that forces schools to make this a priority and laws that limit the amount of homework.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.