Experts: Key to make lifestyle more healthy is to spread activities throughout the day

TAMPA BAY - How do you get in shape and stay in shape? Experts say the real key is to make your entire lifestyle more active by building movement into your day. It is a habit best started as early as possible.

To find out more, we talked with Lisa Witherspoon, co-director of the Active Gaming Research Laboratories at the University of South Florida.

Anything with "gaming" in the title might sound like fun, but her specialty could hardly be more serious: getting kids moving.

Americans of all ages spend too much time on their backsides, and lots of experts think that's a major cause of the obesity epidemic and a growing list of attendant maladies.

But Witherspoon will not tell you and your kids to put down your beloved electronic devices. Her research centers on finding ways to use technology to increase physical activity.

The interview:

Q: What happens, physically, to inactive people?

A: The first and most obvious result is obesity or weight gain. Also well-documented are the problems inactivity causes related to heart disease -- blood pressure, cholesterol, circulation, heart rate, diabetes. Bones lose density, putting you at risk for fractures and osteoporosis. Muscle strength declines, limiting you physically so you're not able to do as much, even just around the house. Balance and coordination decline also as muscle strength declines. Basically, if you don't move, you're slowly killing your body.

Q: Why are some kids running around all the time and others seem glued to the TV?

A: It has a great deal to do with parents and other role models at home. If the parents aren't active, chances are the kids won't be active. Many schools are eliminating or reducing physical education and recess time. So, if they aren't getting it at home or at school, it's no surprise that kids are becoming accustomed to a sedentary lifestyle.

Q: Do parents only need to worry about activity if their child is overweight or obese?

A: Kids who are not active are at a major disadvantage for their health. This isn't about being fat or skinny. We want them healthy so their bones and their hearts, their muscles and their lungs are strong. Active people live longer, have fewer health problems, less pain and live independently longer.

Q: Tell us about your research.

A: What I do is ongoing research on different active gaming or "exergaming" products. I'm also working with schools to hopefully start a pilot program next fall to increase physical activity throughout the day. Students will be instructed to get up and move for five to 10 minutes each hour, then continue the class in their seats.

Q: What is "active gaming"?

A: Some examples are Dance Dance Revolution, Nintendo Wii, Xbox Kinect, Gamercize Steppers, Light space, HopSports. The concept is to require people to use their bodies to play the game. We have two labs at the University of South Florida where we collaborate with different departments across campus and research the health benefits of these games and whether kids like them enough to use them.

Q: How much daily activity is enough?

A: Sixty minutes of moderate to vigorous activity for school-aged children. Every day. And very few are achieving this. Adults need less, about 150 minutes per week at a minimum.

Q: How do you fulfill that requirement?

A: We are just telling families to get up and move, walk in the neighborhood, do active video games, swimming, ride bikes, play catch, Frisbee. Kids need parents involved. If parents don't participate, it's difficult to get kids to buy in. Sometimes you just have to create games, get outside and play.

Q: How do you do this without your family staging a revolt? Is there a wrong way to do it?

A: Yes, we've seen it. Making kids run laps and do things that aren't fun, things that just hurt or are boring will keep kids from wanting to be active. Parents should ask the kids, "What would you like to do?" Get the kids to tell you what's fun to them. Parents should also monitor screen time and shut down sedentary time each afternoon.

Q: How much sedentary screen time should be allowed?

A: Most national professional groups recommend no more than two hours of recreational screen time a day. That doesn't include time spent on homework or school-related projects. I'm talking about limiting TV viewing, surfing the Web, video and computer games, social media. Research tells us that most kids get more than 40 hours of recreational screen time a week.

Tips to get going

You don't have to get all your activity in a single dose. It's better to spread it out, particularly as you get older and more prone to muscle aches and stiffness. For students, a quick activity break can be just the thing to clear the head during a marathon homework session. Some ideas:

  • Park at the back of the parking lot and walk the rest of the way.
  • Take the stairs.
  • "Walk to talk" to your friends, colleagues or business associates. Avoid phoning or messaging them whenever possible.
  • Start your day with exercise to reduce the likelihood of running out of time or being too tired later on.
  • If you and your family love video games, try active ones and play together.
  • Encourage family walks or even dates in the park with a pet or a picnic.
  • Toss a Frisbee. If your dog won't fetch it, that's all the more activity for you.
  • Wear a pedometer. Get one for everyone in the family and compete to see who gets the most steps, or who gets to 10,000 first every day.
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