Over the years there have been numerous advancements in technology with phones, tablets, computers, gaming systems, etc. With these advancements, sedentary behavior from young to old has steadily increased, convenience foods have become more appealing, our lives have become busier, and overall, our environment is rapidly changing. As a result, many chronic diseases are becoming more prevalent among the U.S. population and are now presenting earlier in life and reaching children at younger ages. One of the risk factors for many of these chronic diseases is metabolic syndrome.

What is Metabolic Syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome is an assortment of risk factors that directly promote the development of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Specifically, excessive abdominal fat, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and abnormal lipids (including cholesterol and triglycerides) are the risk factors involved in the diagnosis of metabolic syndrome (1)

Today, 20-25 percent of adults have metabolic syndrome (2). Though, like many chronic diseases, metabolic syndrome does not suddenly appear- it takes years for risk factors to develop and progress. Therefore, it is important to create and maintain healthy habits at an early age to help prevent such adverse health outcomes. In fact, it was found that higher levels of muscular fitness in childhood may protect against the development of metabolic syndrome (2). In other words, the more involved in muscular strengthening and aerobic physical activity a child is, the more muscularly fit and the less prone to chronic disease they are.

At this point, you may be thinking “but, kids don’t have high blood pressure, abnormal lipids or high blood sugar!” Unfortunately, these risk factors are seen in children and adolescents. It is estimated that 1 in 10 teens and more than a third of obese teens have metabolic syndrome and are at high risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (1). Additionally, a study done on second and third-grade children found that 5% had metabolic syndrome and 45% had one or more risk factors for it (1).

Physical activity guidelines: are we meeting them?

Unfortunately, no. For children aged 6-17 years, 60 minutes minimum of physical activity should be reached each day. Only 21.6% of 6 to 19-year-old children and adolescents reached 60 minutes of physical activity on at least 5 days per week, and only 27.1% of high school students participated in at least 60 minutes of physical activity on all 7 days of the week (3). In fact, in 2016 The National Physical Activity Plan Alliance released the “United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth” which sadly reported a D- for overall physical activity (4). Additionally, the school indicator received a D+ due to less than 50% of high school students attending a weekly physical education class in 2016 (4).

Meanwhile, sedentary behavior received a D based on whether children met or surpassed the 2-hour maximum recommendation for screen time. Approximately 50% of American children ages 6-11 met the guidelines for screen time, while the rest surpassed the recommendation (4).

What can be done?

There are many avenues someone could take to decrease their risk for developing metabolic syndrome. Perhaps the most important in a family setting is to “walk the walk” and “talk the talk.” Caregivers and parents that model healthy lifestyle habits such as being physical active most days and healthy eating are role models for their children. When a family practices these healthy lifestyle patterns they become habit. If your family is not currently physically active and watches more than a couple hours of television a day, try the following to create these habits within your family:

  1. Set aside time before or after dinner to get up and move (try interactive family games such as charades, dancing,  playing sports, going for walks, biking, swimming- anything your family loves!)
  2. Set aside screen time versus physical activity rules (get creative with it!)
  3. Join a local community center for fun gatherings and activities
  4. Encourage children to try different sports and try-out for a local sports team or club
  5. Go to a local park and bring fun lawn games and family-friendly activities to play together

There are so many ways to get out and be active with your family but encouraging creativity and physical activity nonetheless is key. Sixty minutes of physical activity a day is recommended for children for growth and development, maintaining a healthy body composition and muscular fitness, reducing risk factors for the development of chronic diseases, improving academic performance and self-concept, and reducing risk of anxiety and depressive symptoms (5). More specifically, the guidelines state that 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day is recommended, in addition to vigorous physical activity, muscle strengthening activity, and bone-strengthening activity at least 3 days of the week (6). You might be wondering what the difference between these forms of activity are; for reference: running, swimming and bicycling are examples of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity, tug-of-war, climbing and push-ups are a few examples of muscle-strengthening activities, and bone-strengthening activities consist of activities such as jumping and running (6).

Lastly, practicing a whole-foods, balanced diet within your family will further promote health and wellbeing and play a large role in preventing metabolic syndrome and chronic disease. Encourage your family to engage in meal-prepping, grocery shopping, and eating together to educate on and support healthier eating habits. Have fun with different flavors, textures, herbs and spices to give life to the dishes that are prepared in the home and remember to limit energy intake from total fats and sugars and increase consumption of quality protein and vegetables, and to a lesser extent, legumes, whole grains and fruit. Avoid added sugar entirely at home.

Practicing these healthy habits will benefit the entire family and promote muscular fitness and proper growth and development while preventing metabolic syndrome in children.


Written by Ashley B., Bastyr University student intern



  1. Metabolic Syndrome. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/metabolic-syndrome.html. Reviewed on February 2018. Accessed April 5, 2018.
  2. Childhood Muscular Fitness and Adult Metabolic Syndrome. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/09/160924010207.htm. Published September 24, 2016. Accessed April 2, 2018.  
  3. Physical Activity Facts. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/physicalactivity/facts.htm. Reviewed April 9, 2018. Accessed April 6, 2018.
  4. 2016 United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth Released. https://health.gov/news/blog-bayw/2016/11/2016-united-states-report-card-on-physical-activity-for-children-and-youth-released/. Published November 16, 2016. Accessed on April 6, 2018.
  5. Status and Trends of Physical Activity Behaviors and Related School Policies. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK201496/. Accessed April 8, 2018.  
  6. The 2016 United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. http://www.physicalactivityplan.org/reportcard/2016FINAL_USReportCard.pdf. Accessed on April 9, 2018.