Exercise For Your Life Stage Chapter 4

Kids on the Move

Children should build strength, endurance, flexibility, balance and coordination early on. Not only does it improve their physical condition, research shows that exercise has a measurable impact on kids' school performance and cognitive skills. Make exercise a standard--and fun!--part of daily life now to prepare kids for long-term fitness and health.


Play to Win, or Just Play?

The obesity epidemic in the United States would seem to be reason enough to encourage more physical activity among kids. About one in three kids is overweight and one in ten dangerously obese. A sedentary lifestyle (along with poor nutrition) seems to be a main culprit. In a study in Iowa, kids engaging in greater amounts of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at age 5 were found to have lower body mass at age 11 than their peers who were less physically active in the early school years. The key to keeping kids active is to help them find the games, sports or activities that are the most fun for them. READ MORE

For some kids, the competitive and social aspects of team sports are a big draw. Those who can handle the pressure to win and navigate the team dynamic may gain great benefits from youth league soccer, baseball, basketball and more. But other kids were not cut out for that kind of competition. Parents should respect their children's individuality and help them explore other activities. In recent decades, school P.E. programs (those that haven't fallen under the budget axe, that is) have grown to include yoga, rock-climbing, rollerblading, even sailing.

Kids who are playing tag or flying disc games in the park are doing important work. So long as they get the heart pumping and work their major muscle groups for at least 60 minutes a day, they are getting adequate exercise. In fact, some team sports end up being less of a workout than one might think. Kids wait for their turn at bat, or wait to start a new drill at practice and might have much less than an hour of active playing time. “My son and I are big baseball fans. We love it,” says Charles Hillman, Ph.D, of the department of Kinesiology & Community Health at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “But we know it's not a good cardio sport. So we supplement it with ice hockey, running and other activities.” LESS


A Workout for Young Brains

An undeniable and growing body of research shows that physical activity helps build and maintain your brain, especially areas specific to memory and reasoning. Charles Hillman, Ph.D, of the department of Kinesiology & Community Health at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has been a key investigator in this field. Many of his lab's studies of children's brains use performance data from memory and spatial reasoning tests and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of their brains. Consistently, children at top levels of fitness outperform more sedentary kids on cognitive tests and tasks in these studies. They also have greater density in the brain's basal ganglia and hippocampus—more brain tissue! The basal ganglia aid in executive control, our ability to select an action based on collected information. The hippocampus is vital to memory function. These two regions of the brain work together to enable many complex cognitive tasks. READ MORE

Exercise physiologists are learning more about the factors that help build and maintain neurons, including brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) whose production exercise stimulates. Besides the benefits "of exercise" that accrue over time, even a single session of exercise has been shown to improve a student's performance on a test. Just 20 minutes of walking, even among children who were unfit, was associated with higher test scores. “In fact, not a single published result shows that physical activity detracts from academic achievement,” says Hillman. And yet, to meet budget shortfalls, schools continue to cut back on physical activity instruction.

In communities where the schools and lifestyle result in too little organized activity for kids, it's up to parents to make up the shortfall. “If your child falls behind in math, you seek out extra opportunities to improve those skills,” says Hillman. “Fitness should be no different.” LESS


Protect Growing Muscles, Bones and Joints

Lifting light weights is fine for most kids. But those who haven’t finished growing risk injuring ligaments, tendons and growth plates in their bones if they lift weights that are too heavy. Most exercise related injuries in young people happen in the soft tissues, and can result from overuse or a sudden impact: sprains, strains and pulled muscles.

Building strength has many health benefits for young athletes. Lifting light weights or working out with resistance bands trains neurons to fire together with each movement, which helps muscle cells “learn” to contract simultaneously. This phenomenon builds strength without considerably increasing muscle mass. There is some evidence that building up certain muscle groups can help prevent injuries by building strength in areas supporting the knees or the rotator cuffs, which are susceptible to overuse injuries. READ MORE

The long bones in a child's limbs have specialized growth zones called the epiphyseal plates, sometimes referred to as growth plates. The plate appears as a thin line near the wide end (epiphysis) of the bone. This flexible region of cartilage is a factory for creating and distributing bone cells that increase the bone's length throughout childhood and adolescence. When a teen reaches full height, the plate's cartilage is reinforced with calcium and other minerals that make bone harden, or ossify. Because the growth plates have such an important job, and are softer than other bone regions, parents and coaches must take special precautions to protect them. Fractures and other compromises of the growth plates can affect how they function. However, most supervised, moderate strength-building activities will not put the growth plates at risk.

The American Academy of Pediatrics makes these recommendations for safe, effective strength training for kids:

  • Kids older than 7 or 8 can build strength with resistance training if they are closely supervised and have professional instruction.

  • A child's pediatrician should be involved in the decision to start strength training. Kids with seizure disorders, cardiac irregularities and other health issues must be closely monitored, and may be advised against some strength-building activities.

  • Building muscles and bones for health and strength are the main objectives. Bodybuilding and other extreme strength activities should be off-limits for kids.

  • Most gym equipment and weight machines are built for adults and can be unsafe for kids. Small free weights, resistance bands or weighted balls are better for preadolescents.

  • Beginners should start learning movements from an instructor using no weights, then move up to very light weights, 1 or 2 pounds. When they can complete 8 to 15 repetitions of a certain move or lift, they may increase weight in 10% increments.

  • Trainers should lead kids in an appropriate warm-up and cool-down period with every workout. And, of course, kids should get plenty of aerobic exercise as well.


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The material on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Consult a licensed medical professional for the diagnosis and treatment of all medical conditions and before starting a new diet or exercise program. If you have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.