When it comes to keeping our youth active and healthy, organized and recreational sports are a go-to for many parents in meeting their children’s high-energy needs. But are the health benefits widely understood and conversely are the dangers of not keeping our youth active being taken seriously?
I want to shed some light on the stigma and lack of education associated with resistance and strength training for our youth as an option for taming their relentless energy while at the same time teaching them discipline, self-awareness, confidence, and goal setting skills – like many recreational sports.
I hope to possibly start a paradigm shift in the perception of resistance training for our youth as well as solidify the more popular belief in organized sports as a tool in our fight to keep our minions in the gym or on the field and off the couch. And to be credible in the process I’ve included some amazing science and facts, that you can “flex” at your kid’s next social gathering!
Is It Safe?
In my experience, this is probably the number one asked question when it comes to dialogue about starting someone who is under 18. But as with any sport or activity there are inherent risks associated with it. While many people still believe that weightlifting can be bad for kids in general, according to many major fitness and health organizations, that theory is considered a myth.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
- National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
- American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
…and many others have all stated the benefits of strength training for kids when done appropriately!
Some of the most popular contact sports like organized hockey and football share common and widely acceptable risk factors such as concussion, injury due to trips/falls, sprains, and soft tissue injury. Even under supervision these injuries are possible. Yet, if you ask an average parent about the benefits or safety of an age-specific and coached strength and resistance program they think of a dingy basement or garage gym with cold concrete floors, heavy metal music, and garden tools ready to sabotage every effort.
Now even though that was the situation for me as a teen, I don’t think you’ll find that setting for any reputable paid service (at least I hope not). Or what about getting lost in a globo gym with no guidance or coaching specific to their kids needs; which in turn contributes more to their social life than their fitness goals in the long-run. Not to mention most gym machines are proportioned for adult bodies, putting the benefits of resistance training for youths further out of their reach.
Check out what mainstream media has to say about the safety of weightlifting for kids and teens.
Video courtesy of CBS New York
In many circles, resistance training has been labelled for “meat-heads”, sport-specific athletes, adults, or even the vain. They will likely not know the scientifically sound facts about how it will positively impact our youth in much the same ways organized sports can. In fact, there are even more ways resistance and strength training can benefit the young athlete that sports alone can’t provide and be a much safer option – making it a great compliment to any sports program.
I was told to wait until puberty when my testosterone actually gave me the results of my hard work in the gym. Seasoned bodybuilders cautioned me when I was young saying that pumping iron may somehow “stunt my growth” or my muscle composition before I “matured”. And that there is no reason for someone to weight train until you’re at least in high school when the social needs for resistance training exist like bulking-up for the football team or to be attractive to the opposite sex.
Thankfully, we have learned a lot since then and now know that girls and boys can actually gain strength before they are even close to puberty! Things like balance, posture, control and coordination start to mature to adult levels by around 7 to 8 years of age (12). This is good news for those parents who may doubt the power of their child’s current resistance program or those who have seen the results but never had the science to back it up.
This is what the American Academy of Pediatrics has to say:
In general, training with weights has been found to help increase strength in children without negative effects on things such as bone growth or blood pressure. Outside the realm of unsupervised home gym equipment, proper strength training has been shown to allow an increase in strength with fewer injuries than occur during recess at school. (12)
The importance of training our youth both physically and mentally in a program such as CrossFit Kids in addition to sports or as an alternative can be justified as described below from the National Strength and Conditioning Assoc.’s position statement on the matter:
“Despite outdated concerns regarding the safety or effectiveness of youth resistance training, scientific evidence and clinical impressions indicate that youth resistance training has the potential to offer observable health and fitness value to children and adolescents, provided that appropriate training guidelines are followed and qualified instruction is available.
In addition to performance-related benefits, the effects of resistance training on selected health-related measures including bone health, body composition, and sports injury reduction should be recognized by teachers, coaches, parents, and health care providers.
These health benefits can be safely obtained by most children and adolescents when prescribed age-appropriate resistance training guidelines.” (6)
Other evidence in support of this, as well as youth exercise in general, is its ability to:
- help fight obesity
- type-2 diabetes
- heart disease
- improve bone density
And based on the cumulative results from these studies, a small to moderate effect was found for exercise training on fasting insulin and improving insulin resistance in youth (1). A huge win to tip the scales in favour of keeping your kids off of the couch and in the gym or field.
Guide Healthy Habits
Establishing healthy habits should be a no-brainer for most parents but not as widely practiced as you may think. It’s shocking to think that childhood overweight and obesity rates have been rising steadily in Canada in recent decades:
- more than doubling for the age group 12 to 17 years! (13)
- only 21.6% of 6 to 19-year-old children/adolescents got one hour or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on at least 5 days per week (9)
I find this highly alarming considering the information that we have access to today and that statistically once the bad habits are formed it only gets worse over time.
One such study to prove this is in the American College of Sports Medicine titled, “Exercise Deficit Disorder in Youth: Play Now or Pay Later”. Its a sobering read that concludes that early childhood exercise and activity habits could be dropped as early as their 6th birthday and that the parents need to guide them in maintaining a level of fitness or risk them developing a pathological process of a sedentary lifestyle.
Couple this with a report from the CDC stating that less than half of youth aged 6 to 7 years meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans published by the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services (8). The same report cited,
“As part of their 60 or more minutes of daily physical activity, children and adolescents should include muscle-strengthening physical activity on at least 3 days of the week.”(9)
Now you’re probably wondering what the next step is in taking control of your child or teens health, to reap the reward of all the fun scientific facts in this article…and without them resenting you pushing them into a boring “pumping iron” regimen?
Where Do I Start?
Full disclosure, I’ve chugged the CrossFit Kool-Aid. And if you’ve read my About page then you know I’m also a coach. But just because I talk about CrossFit all the time doesn’t mean I set-out to write this blog to shove CrossFit down your throat. It just so happens that CrossFit Kids is a perfect example of being able to provide both aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (strength) programming in a safe setting with prescribed age-appropriate resistance training guidelines by trained kids coaches. Just like the science says!
And it is becoming more accessible (most important for affecting the rate of obesity) with CrossFit Kids programs being found in over 1,800 gyms and more than 1,000 schools worldwide. You read that right, schools!
The one hour class is presented in a fun but structured environment for youth ages 3-18. The best years to instill the right movement patters for avoiding injury and teaching their spongy brains everything that makes up a well-structured resistance and conditioning program.
Based on the principle of Mechanics, Consistency and then Intensity, CrossFit Kids emphasizes good movement throughout childhood and adolescence. Consistently good mechanics translates to physical literacy, enhanced sports performance and fewer sports injuries for kids. – CrossFit.com
The safety and efficacy of programs such as this are an essential and accessible tool in ensuring our kids grow with every advantage both physically and mentally with the long-term in mind.
Check out the quick video below to see such a class in action!
Since most parents of “active” children wrongly consider them to meet or even exceed current physical activity recommendations (10), one should seriously consider doing the math and try to meet the minimum guideline for physical activity or even exceed within your child’s means and energy level. The positive changes in our youths concentration, memory, and classroom behavior aren’t thought of as being the tools that are sacrificed when schools cut phys-ed programs or when a parent solely focuses their child on academic activities.
Not surprisingly, children who meet the guidelines for physical activity have higher test scores in both math and reading (4), compared to those who spend less time in physical education classes – suggesting that reducing physical education in schools may actually hinder academic performance for developing children!
With more information in the youth activity circles and through better educating the public of the benefits and safety of strength and conditioning programs, the stigma will soon be erased. Local programs that meet the criteria that the science suggest, such as CrossFit Kids (Newmarket and Aurora Central), we will enable those impressionable ones who look to us for guidance – whether solicited or not.
With the unlimited potential resistance training can have on our youth’s well-being, it’s time we as parents start raising the bar of youth fitness. Fight for accessible programs and educate through leading by example. Fitness in communities motivates us to be stronger, healthier, and relentless in our efforts to redefine our youth and path to independence in “old age”.