Overall health, especially for growing children, really is a sum of the parts. Some days are marked by nonstop activity. Others are marked by a bit more than the recommended amounts of screen time. Some days bedtime comes early. Others are spent staying up late to catch fireflies and watch the stars come out.
Yet, a recent study published in the journal The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health found that when three major lifestyle factors—sleep, physical activity and screen time limits—work in unison, kids could experience significant cognition benefits.
The problem is, the vast majority of American children don’t meet guidelines for these factors.
According to the study, based on survey data from over 4,500 American children aged 9 to 10, 95% of the adolescents failed to meet the 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth that were established by the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP). Worse yet, on a typical day, 30% of American kids didn’t meet any of the three major recommendations.
Although not widely known here—which is a disadvantage of the study—the 24-Hour Movement Guidelines aren’t too ambitious.
It breaks down the 24-Hour Movement Guidelines into three categories:
- Children aged 5 to 13 should get nine to 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
- Children should accumulate 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on a daily basis.
- Recreational screen time shouldn’t exceed two hours daily.
In the United States, it seems families are doing best on meeting the sleep mark, as on average 51% of the children in the study snoozed for the recommended amount. However, nearly two-in-three children partook in too much screen time and more than 80% of the children studied didn’t get enough daily physical exercise.
When the guidelines were met, the payoffs weren’t just for the children’s physical health: According to the researchers, compared to not meeting any, meeting all three aspects of the guidelines was significantly associated with “superior” levels of global cognition, which encompasses measures like memory, attention span, processing speed and language. Even meeting at least some of the guidelines was associated with cognitive benefits compared to meeting none at all.
“We know that the behaviors of physical activity, sleep and screen time can independently impact the cognitive health of a child,” Jeremy Walsh, lead author of the study and a former post-doctoral fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, tells CNN. “We really had an opportunity here to look at how meeting each of these guidelines and meeting all of the guidelines relate to cognition in a large sample of American children.”
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For parents, the takeaway shouldn’t (necessarily) be banning screens and sending kids out to play until a strict 7 p.m. bedtime. Rather, one of the most reassuring findings is that the better we aim to be, the better off we are—so even if it feels impractical to hit all three of the guidelines every day, the researchers found that children experience incremental benefits with each guideline they consistently achieve.
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This article was originally published on September 27, 2018 and has been updated.
* This statement has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.