Dirt, Depression & Childhood Obesity: Why Kids Need More Time Outside

It’s safe to say that technology has a grip on the youth like never seen before, from iPads to cell phones it is safe to say our children are growing up in a world vastly different than we did. With so much time spent in front of screens, and with physical education in schools being cut across the country, our kids also face health deficits like never before. Childhood obesity alone as more than tripled since the 1970’s, disproportionately affecting lower income communities and children of color. One study found that the chances of a child being obese or overweight more than tripled from 20% to over 60% if they lived in an area where poor housing, unsafe surroundings and limited access to parks and recreation centers were common. Childhood obesity leads to a variety of associated illnesses both physical and mental in nature.

The Physical

From birth up to about 8 years of age the human body undergoes the most rapid physical development in our lifespan. Having time outside running around and playing is key to this development and integration of new motor pathways within the body. Studies have shown that increased physical activity in preschool aged children had significant benefits for development of both motor skills and cognitive function. In addition to the benefits of physical activity, your children also benefit from the exposure to the sun and vitamin D. Vitamin D a key nutrient in bone growth and development, and critical if children are to reach maximum peak bone density while growing. Furthermore, spending more time in outdoor environments interacting with the world, getting dirty, naturally boosts the immune system. Through exposure to dirt, plants and other elements in nature, the body builds defenses to new microbes and organisms that wouldn't normally be available indoors, thus strengthening future defenses.

The Mental

Sedentary behavior, related to increased screen and indoor time, has also been directly linked to depression in adolescents. As well as depression, sedentary lifestyles and obesity in children are related to increased prevalence of ADHD. Overweight and obese children were also found to be bullied amongst peers at higher rates than other children, which can compound upon self esteem issues and a predisposition to depression. Outdoor physical activity and time away from screens can assist in the reduction in cases of a variety of mental deficits ranging from depression and lowered self esteem to increased isolation and antisocial behaviors.

What Can Parents Do?

The CDC recommends 60 minutes of physical activity daily for school aged children (6-19 years old). Therefore finding new and creative ways to introduce physical activity to children, whether through traditional sports and recreational activities or exploring your local nature trail or state park, is key. Playdates with other children in your family or friends circle may be a fun way to connect with your friends while getting your kids outside in nature for a few hours. Also consider programs at local gyms and community centers for kids after school and during the summer season. It may be a challenge but get those kids outside for a few hours a day, just don’t forget the sunscreen (yes, even on our melanin)!

Kevin Kinney