Making Exercise Appealing for Young Couch Potatoes

June 19, 2015

Yes, there’s a television in Steinbeck’s Scottsdale, Ariz., home. But the family’s television room also boasts an exercise bicycle, mini trampoline, and several large exercise balls.

Her two children are just as interested in the tube as any other red-blooded American kids, but Steinbeck sees to it that if they’re tuned in, they’re exercising at the same time.

Everyone in the family uses the equipment as we watch television, the author of the best-selling Fat Free cookbook series explains. That way, the kids are hardly ever sitting and they’re in constant motion. It’s one way to make viewing more than a passive activity.

Steinbeck’s not alone in her concern about the known effects of television, computers and video game use on children’s health and fitness - especially since the amount of time children spend in front of one screen or another has steadily escalated over the last 20 years.

An Average of 36 Hours A Week
In 1999, Douglas Gentile, Ph.D., child development expert and director of research at the National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) in Minneapolis, Minn., and David Walsh, Ph.D., executive director of NIMF, conducted a national survey of the media habits of American families. The two examined a number of factors, including how much screen time youngsters were accumulating.They reported the average American child:

  • watches 25 hours of television each week
  • plays computer or video games for seven hours each week
  • accesses the Internet - for those who have Internet access - from home for four hours each week

Gentile and Walsh also found that 20 percent of 2- to 7-year olds, 46 percent of 8- to 12-year olds, and 56 percent of 13- to 17-year olds now have televisions in their bedrooms. A Kaiser Foundation survey of children’s television habits conducted in 1999 showed an even higher rate of kids with their own televisions - a whopping 65 percent.

The NIMF study reported such children watch television on average about 5.5 more hours each week than their peers who don’t have television access in their own bedrooms and, among the adverse effects, they engage in fewer activities that don’t involve electronic media, including physical exercise. Coincidentally, they also get poorer grades in school.

None of this means that every child who has a television in his or her bedroom will stop reading, playing baseball, or receive failing grades, says Walsh. But because most parents in this country are allowing children to have TVs in their bedrooms, they should know there may be some consequences attached to that decision.

Among those consequences is childhood obesity, many doctors and child development experts conclude - a condition that’s reached epidemic proportions.

A Weighty Matter
Over the past four decades, several large national surveys have monitored the fattening up of America’s children. Rebecca Moran, M.D., a family practitioner at Dinsdale Medical Group in Gilbert, Ariz., reviewed the findings from this growing body of research in an article in the February 15, 1999 issue of American Family Physician.

As Moran points out, the prevalence of childhood obesity is now estimated to be between 25 and 30 percent. In other words, more than one-fourth of American children and adolescents weigh more than is healthy for them.

Since 1960, obesity has increased 54 percent in American children 6 to 11 years old, and 39 percent in adolescents 12 to 17 years old. The prevalence of severe obesity shot up 98 percent among the younger group - and 64 percent among the older. Minority youth - particularly Hispanic, Native American and African-American youngsters - tend to be more affected than youth from other racial/ethnic groups.

Moran includes both decreased levels of physical activity and increased time spent watching television in the list of factors that increase the risk a youngster will become obese.

The child’s level of physical activity is important not only for cardiac risk evaluation, but also to help guide future treatment, she explains. As a corollary to this, the television watching pattern should also be reviewed.

In addition to recommendations for a healthy diet and an admonition not to use food for comforting or rewarding children, Moran advises parents to:

  • limit the amount of television viewing
  • encourageactiveplay
  • establish regular family activities, such as walks, ball games and other outdoor activities

Combining Screen Time With Activity
Inyatnga Mack, M.D., clinical director of Family Medicine at Temple University Health Sciences Center in Philadelphia, Pa., points out that now is the ideal time to intervene in children’s sedentary lifestyles.

Parents have to take a more active role to help their children avoid obesity, she says. The summer months offer an excellent opportunity for parents to do simple things to help children shed pounds and prevent future health problems.

But, despite good intentions, many parents feel they are fighting a losing battle when it comes to weaning their children off television, video games and the computer and turning them on to a more active lifestyle - especially during the summer months, when many older children are at home alone and operating a mouse, remote control or joystick are the only physical activities they are planning on performing.

Steinbeck, however, isn’t alone in discovering that it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition.Many parents have devised ways integrate some of the passive television, video and computer activities that contribute to childhood obesity with more active, physical activities that promote childhood health.

Play to View
Bruce Williams, R.P.T, is a licensed physical therapist and certified personal trainer in Brooklyn, N.Y. This father of two is more aware than most parents of the value of regular exercise for youngsters because of his professional training - as is his wife, Gerry, an intensive care nurse.Since his son and daughter were small, both Gerry and Bruce have both worked hard to insure their children don’t become victims of a lifestyle that promotes obesity and its associated health problems.

My wife and I let Roger and Sally watch television, play video games and use the computer, Williams explains, but we have always set limits on the amount of time each week they can spend in such passive activities. One way that we’ve devised to help them balance physical exercise and television or video games is by requiring them their viewing time through active play.

The Williams set viewing limits that conform to the February 2001 Policy Statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics on Children, Adolescents and Television recommending that parents limit children’s total time spent on entertainment media to no more than one to two hours of quality programming daily and remove television sets from children’s bedrooms.

The Academy also recommends that television viewing be discouraged altogether for children younger than two years old, coupled with the encouragement of interactive activities and alternative entertainment for children, including reading, athletics, hobbies and creative play.

In the Williams household, Roger, 12, and Sally, 10, are each allowed to select up to eight hours of television programming for viewing on the family’s single television set during the week and four hours during the weekend. Watching videos, playing video games (handheld or console types), and time on the computer playing games or talking with friends is counted as television time by the Williams family. Computer use for completing homework is not.

The amount of viewing allowed isn’t increased during the summer months, because the Williams want to encourage outdoor play and physical activity year-round.

To earn viewing points that they can cash in for TV time, Roger and Sally participate in organized or personally initiated physical activities, including biking, skating, swimming, walking, Little League sports, jumping rope, hopscotch and other children’s outdoor activities one hour for each hour of television they wish to watch. The family has an exercise bicycle and stair-stepper they can use, but the Williams children seldom do, preferring to be outdoors as much as possible.

Each child maintains a record of daily exercise on a whiteboard calendar in the family room. It’s done on the honor system, says Williams.

The fact is, he reports, the children never balked at the idea that we want them to exercise at least as much as they participate in passive entertainment.

Williams described other methods he’s used helped his private clients cut into the time they and their children spend as couch potatoes:

Put an exercise bicycle, treadmill, mini-trampoline or any other kind of exercise equipment in front of the TV. Children can watch, as long as they are using the equipment in 15 to 20 minute increments, with rest periods in between. If your TV room is large enough, create a cycle of activities to vary the muscle groups used.

Remove or disable the remote control device. These devices promote channel surfing or random television watching as a response to boredom.

Put a timer on the television, computer or video game. When the time is up, the device is turned off. A timer can also be set to delineate periods for physical activity and exercise. Use 15-minute blocks of time at first, and allow virtually any physical activity to count - basketball, walking, jumping rope, using a piece of exercise equipment, climbing a tree, walking up and down stairs or performing jumping jacks, sit-ups and pushups - encourage variety and your child’s creativity.

As a step toward more activity for children already addicted to television, create an exercise program of stretches and active aerobics that can be performed while watching favorite shows. Exercise along with the child at first to show that it can be done, and can be fun.

Encourage the child to watch and participate in one of the exercise shows on television, many of them found on cable stations. Exercise along with the child, at least at the beginning. If your area does not have such programming, purchase an exercise video. Some of them, such as Tae Bo, include child participants. Setting up a chart the child can use to record the amount of time spent exercising every day can be motivational, too.

Remove the television from your child’s bedroom and from the area where the family eats meals. If you can’t remove the television from your eating area, don’t turn it on during meals. Use mealtimes to talk about activities that have been completed, and plan new ones.

Solve the Inactivity Crisis In Your Home
In mid-1999, C. Everett Koop, M. D. the former U.S. Surgeon General and founder of both and Shape Up America!, called for a national mobilization to make fitness a national health priority.

Noting that inactivity has reached crisis proportions as a result of a highly technological society that makes it increasingly convenient to remain sedentary and discourages physical activity in both obvious and subtle ways, Koop announced the establishment of an online fitness center at

Parents whose children have become chair potatoes as Internet addicts can encourage regularly signing on to the Shape Up America! Fitness center and implementation of the activity schedules found there as a means of engaging their computer-savvy offspring.

Shape Up America also recommends the following home-based strategies to promote physical fitness and family health:

  • Designate indoor and outdoor play areas where rolling, climbing, jumping and tumbling are allowed.
  • Buy toys or equipment that promote physical activity.
  • Select fitness-oriented gifts, with the recipient’s interests and skills in mind.
  • Limit time spent watching television programs, DVDs and videotapes, and playing computer games.
  • Use physical activity rather than food as a reward (e.g., family goes in-line skating).
  • Include grandparents, other relatives and friends whenever possible.
  • Emphasize the importance of having fun and learning; avoid a push to win.
  • Spend as much time outdoors as possible.
  • Get off the couch and change the channel manually - or better yet, turn it off!