New stats released by the American Heart Association are unsettling

You only need to look at information released by the American Heart Association to understand the necessity of promoting physical fitness and healthy lifestyles to youngsters.

* Children in the United States today are less fit than they were a generation ago and are showing early signs of cardiovascular disease, such as weight gain and higher serum cholesterol. In fact, 14.2 million girls and 12.8 million boys age 19 and under have serum cholesterol levels of 170 mg/dl or higher.

* Even though heart attacks and strokes are rare in children, evidence suggests that the process leading to those conditions begins in childhood.

* A fitness testing program sponsored by the Chrysler Fund Amateur Athletic Union, which tracks fitness among 9.7 million youngsters between 6 and 17, shows that children are getting slower in endurance running and are getting weaker.

* Since 1980 there has been a 10 percent drop-off on scores for distance runs and an 11 percent decline in youngsters who achieved at least a "satisfactory" score on the entire test.

* Inactive children are more likely to become inactive adults.

* An estimated 2.1 million adolescents age 12 to 17 are smokers. Nine million American children under age 5 live with at least one smoker and are exposed to second-hand smoke for virtually the whole day. It is estimated that 3,000 young people become smokers every day.You only need to look at information released by the American Heart Association to understand the necessity of promoting physical fitness and healthy lifestyles to youngsters.

* Children in the United States today are less fit than they were a generation ago and are showing early signs of cardiovascular disease, such as weight gain and higher serum cholesterol. In fact, 14.2 million girls and 12.8 million boys age 19 and under have serum cholesterol levels of 170 mg/dl or higher.

* Even though heart attacks and strokes are rare in children, evidence suggests that the process leading to those conditions begins in childhood.

* A fitness testing program sponsored by the Chrysler Fund Amateur Athletic Union, which tracks fitness among 9.7 million youngsters between 6 and 17, shows that children are getting slower in endurance running and are getting weaker.

* Since 1980 there has been a 10 percent drop-off on scores for distance runs and an 11 percent decline in youngsters who achieved at least a "satisfactory" score on the entire test.

* Inactive children are more likely to become inactive adults.

* An estimated 2.1 million adolescents age 12 to 17 are smokers. Nine million American children under age 5 live with at least one smoker and are exposed to second-hand smoke for virtually the whole day. It is estimated that 3,000 young people become smokers every day.

c 1999 American Heart Association