The No. 1 Way to Improve Kids' Health

A simple everyday activity that’s exciting, fun—and free—helps kids become healthier, happier, and smarter, and can even sharpen their eyesight. To reap amazing physical and psychological benefits—and dramatically improve their health—all your kids have to do is play outdoors for at least an hour a day.

Active time outdoors improves everything from kids’ blood pressure to wound healing, school grades, vitamin D levels, cardiovascular health, motor skills and body weight, to attention span and mental health. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids play outdoors as much as possible.

A new study of teenagers, published in the July issue of Pediatrics, is the latest to show the value of fun in the sun: Teens who devoted the most time to moderate-to-vigorous fresh-air activities, such as sports, enjoyed the best health and social functioning, while kids who spent the most time indoors watching TV or playing video games were most likely to feel lonely, shy and glum.

Kids Play Outside Less Than 8 Minutes a Day

Today’s kids spend less time playing outdoors than any previous generation: an average of just four to seven minutes of unstructured outdoor play a day—while spending more than seven hours daily sitting indoors glued to electronic screens—putting both their mental and physical health dangerously at risk, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

About half of parents don’t take kids ages 3 to 5 outside for any active time—even a stroll around the block—every day,  according to a shocking new study of about 9,000 preschoolers, published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Little girls were 16 percent less likely to be taken outside even once a day than boys, the researchers reported.

Some experts link behavioral problems—from impaired attention to hyperactivity, aggression and poor social skills—to the growing amount of time that kids spend alone at home consuming electronic media, instead of playing outside with their friends, in natural settings: a problem that been dubbed “nature-deficit disorder.”

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Surprising Benefits of “Green Exercise”

Here are some surprising, science-backed discoveries about how outdoor play boosts kids’ health:

Better eyesight. Not enough time out in the sun, looking off into the distance, has caused a worldwide epidemic of myopia (near-sightedness) in kids. While myopia used to be considered an inherited problem, new research shows that environment is a key cause. In some Asian countries, up to 90 percent of school-aged kids are nearsighted. Yet when kids of Asian heritage move to sunnier nations, such as Australia, their rates of myopia drop, showing that genes are not the sole culprits.

A recent study published in Optometry and Vision Science found that nearsighted American kids averaged 4.3 fewer hours outside each week than children with normal eyesight and watched much more TV. 

Better mental health. Spending just five minutes in a park, woods, or other natural setting—walking, fishing, biking, or even doing farm chores—improves mood and self-esteem, particularly in children. The biggest effect of “green exercise” was found in settings near water, British researchers reported in Environmental Science & Technology. 

More energy and joy. "Nature is fuel for the soul," says Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, who led a series of studies showing that being outdoors for 20 minutes  boosts vitality.  Other research shows that up to 90 percent of people feel more energetic during outdoor activities—and simply remembering fun in the sun lifts happiness and health, reports University of Rochester.

Stimulating imagination and social skills. Outdoor games—from building a fort in the backyard to playing hide-and-go-seek or inventing their own adventures—fosters creativity and problem-solving, and encourages cooperation with others, improving kids’ people skills.

Better test scores. Students at schools that offer environmental education score higher on standardized math, reading, writing and listening tests. Learning about nature sharpens kids’ performance on tests of critical thinking and boosts their grades.

Stronger bones. Playing outside boosts levels of the sunshine vitamin (vitamin D), helping protect kids from broken bones, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other future health problems.

Largely because kids spend more time on sedentary indoor pursuits, instead of vigorous play in the sun, their bones are getting weaker. Mayo Clinic researchers have reported a 42 percent rise in young people’s forearm fractures, compared to the rate in this age group 30 years earlier.

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Greater resistance to disease. Green exercise reduces stress, thus improving immune system functioning, helping kids ward off colds and infections. These benefits also help explain why outdoor play improves wound healing and reduces blood pressure.  

Reducing ADHD symptoms. In one study rating the effects of 49 common after-school activities on kids with ADHD, activities in green outdoor settings worked best for calming kids and reducing symptoms—without medication.

Nicer kids. Natural settings enhance social interactions, close relationships, and family bonds. University of Rochester studies show that even looking at nature photos makes people feel more generous, charitable and community-minded, compared to looking at urban settings.

Longer lives. Researchers estimate that sedentary, overweight kids will have a lifespan that’s three to five years shorter than that of active kids, since childhood patterns tend to predict adult behavior. Playing outside for an hour or more a day also trims risk for obesity.

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