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Turn off the TV -- and Turn on to Physical Activity!

Imagine having no television for an entire season. Such was the case for a friend, whose mother hauled the appliance right out of the house at the start of every summer. Surprisingly, Ola and her siblings didn't miss it, as they managed to keep themselves busy in other ways. And, today, Ola is glad her mother maintained that annual tradition, as she learned not to rely on TV to keep her entertained. She and her two young daughters also tend to be more physically active than other families she knows ? something she attributes directly to the amount of active play she engaged in as a child.

Could today's families survive as well without the "tube?" And, if forced to go without (say, during TV-Turnoff Week: this year April 25 - May 1), would they be physically active or simply resort to another form of electronic entertainment?

Unfortunately, children today spend the better part of their waking lives watching television. It's been estimated that between the ages of two and seventeen American children spend an average of three years of their waking lives watching TV ? and that doesn't even include time spent watching videos, playing video games, or using the computer. That's the equivalent of more than fifteen thousand hours in front of the set (about a thousand hours a year) ? as compared with twelve thousand hours spent in a classroom. The end result? A total of twenty-seven thousand hours ? more than six years of their young lives ? without a whole heck of a lot of movement.

Why be concerned? The number-one reason is that too much television results in an unfit individual ? adult or child. In 1998 researchers at San Diego State University found that both parents' and children's performance levels on a simple test of aerobic fitness (one-mile walk/run) decreased as their viewing increased. The fact is, children who watch several hours of television every day have lower fitness levels than those who watch fewer than two hours.

Worse still, as the hours spent watching TV increase, so does the likelihood of obesity among children and adolescents. Researchers are discovering that the percentage of body fat increases along with the number of hours spent in front of the tube ? and that obesity is lower among children who watch television for one hour or less a day. The risk actually increases almost two percent for each additional hour watched!

Of course, even children who aren't overweight or obese can still be unfit if they participate in too little vigorous physical activity. Whether it's evident on the outside or not, when the time comes for them to exert physical energy, they'll likely find their muscles, heart, and lungs aren't up to the challenge.

Once upon a time, children ran and skipped, climbed trees, jumped rope, played hopscotch, and rode their bicycles for blocks. Most likely you remember some of that yourself. Before you were old enough for school, it seems you were never indoors. You and the neighborhood children ran screaming through each other's yards and even down the middle of the streets. You raced each other to the slide and the swings, chased butterflies, and got grass-stained practicing your tumbling skills on the lawn.

Once you were in school all day, the instant the bell sounded, you ran all the way home, shed your good clothes, and were out the door again. You played touch football, hide-and-seek, and tag. And you stayed outside until forced to come in. It's no wonder no one ever worried about your getting enough exercise!

But does all that activity bring to mind what your own children are doing? Probably not. Today, because children's days are nearly as scheduled as adults' ? and they are driven, rather than walk, everywhere ? we need to "program" movement into our daily lives.

That doesn't have to be as challenging as it may sound. It can be as simple as putting on some music and holding a dance party in the living room. Make a game of Statues out of it by inviting your children to move in any way they want while the music is playing and to freeze into statues when you pause it. Play Follow the Leader, or break out the pots and pans and hold a parade around the house. Play a rousing game of Twister or simply go for an after-dinner stroll.

Once you've turned off the TV, you'll be amazed at the amount of time you have together and the creative ways you'll find to spend that time. Remember, though, that the most important thing you can do is to serve as a role model. Research has shown that parents' inactivity may exert more influence on their children's behavior than being active does. So, if your children see you sitting in front of the TV during all your free time ? if they never see you exercising or enjoying yourself as you do something physical ? your actions (in this case inactions) will speak volumes. They'll simply follow suit. Even if you tell them how important it is to be physically active, they'll have no reason to believe you. So turn off the TV and turn on to physical activity! Both you and your children will be glad you did.

Rae Pica is a children's physical activity specialist and the author of Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development through Age-Appropriate Activity (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Visit Rae at http://www.movingandlearning.com

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The European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile has a busy observation schedule, but sometimes cloudy or moonlit skies mean a temporary halt to scientific measurements. During those times, the observatory team chooses interesting and beautiful objects across the southern skies to image in color.
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