updated 6/21/2005 3:51:19 PM ET 2005-06-21T19:51:19

Children should get an hour of exercise over the course of each day, a panel of national obesity experts has concluded, seeking to end confusion on the matter.

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"Physical activity is essential for health. This just puts a number on the amount of physical activity children should receive or shoot for," said Dr. William Dietz, director of nutrition and physical activity for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which funded the panel. The recommendation was made earlier this month.

The committee was created to cut through conflicting advice on children's exercise — 27 different groups have their own recommendations.

"People get confused about what they should do," Dietz said. Federal health officials hopes the different organizations will adopt the panel's advice so parents will get a unified message from the health community.

The panel reviewed more than 850 existing studies on child physical activity and found that most recommended 30 to 45 minutes of continuous activity.

But the panel decided that 60 minutes of exercise was more appropriate because children typically are active in "fits and spurts" rather than in a continuous manner, said Dr. William Strong, a co-chairman of the panel.

"What we're trying to say is that you accumulate this over the day — it doesn't have to be in one particular spurt of activity," said Strong, a retired professor of medicine at the Medical College of Georgia.

Children should be given the chance to take part in a variety of physical activity, from walking to jumping rope to competitive sports.

"The reality is children aren't going to be physically active unless it's fun," Dietz said.

It's an important issue because besides helping control weight, regular exercise reduces the risk for heart attack, colon cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure, and may reduce their risk for stroke.

"The real issue is not that children are having immediate problems, but that if we don't do something about this now, 20 to 30 years from now we'll have a severe epidemic of cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome," Strong said.

The CDC previously said that more than a third of high school students nationwide do not engage in vigorous physical activity, such as running or playing sports like basketball or soccer.

Daily participation in high school physical education classes dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 32 percent in 2001, according to the latest data from the CDC.

Dietz said that in Atlanta, where the health agency is based, children have "substantial difficulties" in being active.

"Most children (in Atlanta) can't walk to school because of traffic and because of the way communities are designed," he said. "Part of the challenge in today's world is finding opportunities to make physical activity fun."

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