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Why our kids are out of shape and African kids are the fittest

Sports are an integral part of American life. Many families spend weekends cheering on kids playing Little League or soccer games, as well as rooting for professional sports teams.

But just because Americans like sports doesn’t mean they are athletic. In fact, American kids are some of the least fit in the world.

A study of aerobic fitness of 1.1 million kids aged 9 to 17 years old from 50 countries found that American kids ranked 47th. The children’s fitness was tested by assessing their ability to complete a shuttle run progressive running test. Kids ran between two lines 20 meters apart as a timer beeped in increasingly shorter intervals. Also know as the “beep test,” children run between the lines until they can no longer reach the other side within the time of the beep.

The typical 12-year-old American kid could only run about 520 meters before they became too slow to make it across the line before the beep. The fittest kids were in Tanzania, where a child of the same age could run 840 meters before tiring.

The countries that had the highest average of fit kids were found in Africa and Central-Northern Europe. After Tanzania, Iceland, Estonia and Norway were the fastest. Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom all ranked ahead of the U.S., which finished just before Latvia, Peru and Mexico.

Poor aerobic fitness can increase the likelihood that serious health problems like cancer, diabetes and heart disease will develop later in life. Studies have found that fitness level during childhood is a strong predictor of future health and premature death.

Authors of the study wanted to know why American kids, who have gym class in school and recreational sports leagues, are not as fit as children in other parts of the world. They examined how fitness and socioeconomic and demographic factors like childhood obesity, physical activity levels, wealth inequality, standard of living and climate played into how successful a country’s children were at the beep test.

It found that wealth inequality, or the gap between rich and poor people, was the strongest indicator of how fit a country was. Nations with a large gap between rich and poor tended to have lower fitness levels.

“This could be because countries with a big gap between rich and poor tend to have large subpopulations of poor individuals. Poverty is linked to bad social and health outcomes – one of which being lower aerobic fitness levels – including lower physical activity levels, higher levels of fat, lower life expectancy, increased risk of cardiovascular and other diseases, impairment of children’s growth and social disintegration,” wrote researcher Grant Tomkinson, associate professor at the University of North Dakota.

“This finding suggests that initiatives to reduce the gap between rich and poor, such as progressive taxation regimes, salary regulation or income redistribution, might be suitable population approaches to increase fitness.”

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