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Fitness for Children and Teens
Last updated on January 27, 2012
By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
Kids seem busier than ever. Parents are shuttling them from one activity to the next right after school and on weekends. But if children and teens are so busy, why are they putting on so much weight? And clearly they are getting heavier. According to recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics, 15% of U.S. children are obese and another 15% are overweight.
Diet is only part of the problem. And putting too much focus on food and weight loss can be counterproductive. Consider making exercise the priority and hinting at how healthy eating improves body shape, endurance, attitude and energy level.
Get Kids To Exercise More
Not an easy task. Despite all the activities, kids today are actually more sedentary than ever before. They use the car for transportation rather than walking or riding a bike. While at home or with friends, they are hardly moving while watching TV, going online and talking on the phone. Plus the homework that gets done sitting in a chair or lying on the bed.
Teens pose special challenges, especially those who are not involved in school sports. Adolescents grapple with identity, sense of character, confidence and self-esteem. For them, working out to get fit rarely sounds like a fun way to spend any spare time they might have. And an overweight or out-of-shape teenager is even less likely to want to display his or her body and lack of fitness in front of peers.
Because childrens attitudes and beliefs are influenced by their role models, the best way to get your child more active is to model healthy living and encourage dynamic activities.
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Cultivate a Dynamic Environment
The first step in changing an apathetic or unmotivated attitude is to alter the climate in the home. A dynamic environment is one that promotes activity and encourages healthful decisions, balanced with quiet time for rest, relaxation and school work.
There are many ways you can foster a dynamic environment in your home:
- Encourage walking whenever possible: to school, to the store, to the library, and at the mall.
- Join the gym as a family. Going to the gym with a parent or guardian, sibling or friend is a great way to make exercise a habit. Many health clubs now have special programs for teens.
- Do activities together as a family; hiking, bike riding, and walking are all easy and inexpensive ways to be active.
- Limit television and non-school-related computer use to designated times during the day (an average of one hour per day is a good goal).
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Types and Duration of Exercise
Whereas adults should strive for a combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training, children and teens need to be careful when embarking on any strength training or weight lifting.
Kids should aim for 60 minutes of aerobic physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week. Encouraging them to choose whatever they think will be the most fun is more important than choosing a particular activity.
There is a long list of activities to choose from. Team sports are great, but require more planning and organization. Even though it is more often more enjoyable to have company, these activities can be done alone and at the child's convenience:
- Fast walking
- Jumping rope
- In-line skating
Weight-bearing activities (any activity where your body works against gravity) can be particularly important for adolescent girls; it builds strong bones and reduces the risk of osteoporosis later in life.
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In the past, strength training was thought to be dangerous for children who have not fully developed. Many pediatricians feared it could cause injury or impede bone growth. However, more recent studies suggest that supervised strength training has many benefits for preteens and adolescents, including improving balance and coordination; enhancing muscle strength and flexibility, which may improve motor fitness skills; and increasing self-esteem.
The age at which it is safe to begin resistance exercises is debated and there is no clear consensus. The most conservative pediatricians advise against any weight lifting before puberty. No matter what age a child starts, resistance training must be done in a safe environment with qualified adult supervision. Beginners should start with simple movements. Body-weight exercises, such as push-ups and crunches, are great for beginners to gradually improve strength and develop proper technique. Once a teen is ready for resistance training using weights, it is important that a fitness professional or knowledgeable adult teach proper form and execution of each movement.
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- Stay hydrated and eat an adequate diet. Drink two 8-ounce glasses of water pre-workout and another two glasses post-workout. One should also drink water every 15 to 20 minutes during a workout. If a workout exceeds one hour, a sports drink will help restore electrolytes, but water is sufficient for workouts under an hour.
- Encourage success, not competition. It is important to be realistic about fitness goals. The focus should always be on effort, not how fast one can run or how much weight can be lifted.
- Always warm up, cool down and stretch. Each strength workout should begin with a 10 minute warm-up and conclude with a 10 minute cool-down. Stretch each body part during the cool-down period or between exercises while the muscles are warm.
- Keep it fun! Vary physical activity 1) to prevent your body from adapting to a routine, 2) to maintain interest, and 3) to discover new strengths, because everyone is different.
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The Bottom Line
Starting good fitness habits at an early age has many benefits, such as increased strength, flexibility, self-esteem and a healthy weight. And you don't even need to mention how it will make them healthier adults.
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Howard LeWine, M.D. is chief editor of Internet publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.