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New Study Argues That Today’s Children Are Weaker Than Previous Generations

By Presser
February 23, 2024
5 min read

The kids are not alright, at least according to a new literature review published in Dec. 2023. The paper, cheekily entitled “May the Force Be with Youth: Foundational Strength for Lifelong Development,” was published in the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports last December. Reports is curated by the American College of Sports Medicine. 

In the review, the authors rely on recent scientific studies to make some strong claims: That children and young adolescents today are failing to meet the strength, coordination, and general athletic requirements to prevent disease later in life.

“Measurable reductions in physical fitness are beginning to emerge,” the authors assert at the onset of their arguments. Here’s what’s going on and whether their claims hold water. 

Adult man does push-ups with blonde child in exercise studio
Credit: VGstockstudio / Shutterstock

[Related: Research Shows That Active Children Get Better Grades]

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.

What the Study Says

This analytical review — note that it was not a real-world study carried out on child participants — was authored by Faigenbaum et al., who examined a collection of existing literature on sport and physical activity behaviors among children and adolescents.

Their chief assertion is straightforward enough; today’s youth are not as fit as they should be. (1) According to Faigenbaum & colleagues’ reporting, only one in five children met the physical fitness benchmarks set by the World Health Organization. (2)

Those benchmarks include attaining 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) each day. As such, the authors assert that there’s a growing prevalence of what they call “pediatric dynapenia” in children and teens. Dynapenia typically describes the gradual loss of muscular strength and endurance in elderly folk. As such, the paper indicates that a “cycle of consequences” is starting to take shape: 

  • Dynapenia in children creates a “strength deficit,” which leads to functional limitations in mobility and activity.
  • These functional limitations create sedentary behavioral habits in children.
  • Habitual physical inactivity and failure to meet MVPA benchmarks increase injury risk.
  • Higher injury risks and a sedentary lifestyle reduce resilience and lead to poor health outcomes.
  • These conditions increase the likelihood of disability and disease, which creates more dynapenia, and the cycle repeats. 

Other Findings

Faigenbaum & colleagues examined additional studies to look a bit deeper into the causes and consequences of these behaviors. 

  • They argue that current physical activity guidelines place too much emphasis on general movement at the expense of “strength-building activities.”
  • The authors examined longitudinal data showing that muscular weakness during adolescence is predictive of disability up to 30 years later, particularly for nervous system or psychiatric conditions. (3)
  • Faigenbaum & colleagues identified that children with excessive smartphone use or television time tend to have poor health outcomes later in life. 

All is not lost for Generations Z & A, though. The authors of this paper also examined existing studies to identify what types of physical activity are best suited to preventing poor health later in life.

The authors regard bodyweight exercise, group training masked as “play,” and carefully controlled weight lifting as beneficial. They also cited one specific paper that argued that the ability to squat 105% of body weight is the optimal benchmark for preventing traumatic knee injuries (note that this study was conducted on adolescent female athletes). (4)

[Related: The Best Beginner Workout Plan to Kickstart Your Fitness Goals]

Limitations

While Faigenbaum et al. were comprehensive in their examination of the existing literature on childhood activity levels, this review does come with some considerations.

  • This work is a literature review, not a longitudinal study, cohort study, or cross-sectional experiment. The authors did not conduct experiments and draw direct conclusions from their data; they examined existing works and compiled their arguments accordingly. 
  • More specifically, the authors did not cite specific comparisons in strength tests between children in 2023 and years past. 
  • Many of the claims made in this paper are speculative or correlational instead of causative. However, the authors’ arguments are steeped in a wide array of existing data from other researchers. 

Your Takeaways

This paper examined general trends in physical activity, fitness, and muscular strength among children and young adolescents. By reviewing existing literature, Faigenbaum & colleagues painted a clear picture — children and teens are less active overall than in years past, and these habits may lead to poor health outcomes and chronic disease in adulthood

References 

  1. Faigenbaum, Avery D. EdD, FACSM1; Ratamess, Nicholas A. PhD1; Kang, Jie PhD, FACSM1; Bush, Jill A. PhD, FACSM1; Rial Rebullido, Tamara PhD2. May the Force Be with Youth: Foundational Strength for Lifelong Development. Current Sports Medicine Reports 22(12):p 414-422, December 2023. | DOI: 10.1249/JSR.0000000000001122
  2. World Health Organization. WHO Guidelines on Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 2020. 
  3. Henriksson H, Henriksson P, Tynelius P, Ortega FB. Muscular weakness in adolescence is associated with disability 30 years later: a population-based cohort study of 1.2 million men. Br. J. Sports Med. 2019; 53:1221–30.
  4. Augustsson SR, Ageberg E. Weaker lower extremity muscle strength predicts traumatic knee injury in youth female but not male athletes. BMJ Open Sport Exerc. Med. 2017; 3:e000222.

Featured Image: VGstockstudio / Shutterstock

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