Participation in sports and group fitness activities has tremendous benefits for the physical, academic, and emotional health of children.
Everyone knows this, right?
It should be obvious, but what may not be is just how far-reaching these benefits can be when children have access to sports and fitness programs.
And, just as importantly, when kids don’t have access to these programs, the negative consequences are profound.
So, are we giving children the opportunities they need or are we falling behind?
Regular physical activity and participation in sports are associated with lower rates of obesity, greater bone density, increased cardiovascular fitness, improved coordination, and improved social and personal skills.
Participation in sports also has psychological and social health benefits including higher self-confidence, fewer depressive episodes, decreased anxiety, better teamwork and social skills, stronger self-discipline, and greater academic success.
We know all of this from multiple research studies. Here are just a few:
So, we know that sports and physical activity are great for kids.
But there’s a big catch:
Sports and fitness programs for kids and teens need to be accessible and include appropriate, high-quality instruction.
The most effective programs have to be accessible and also need to have certain qualities:
Moderate physical activity actually begins to decline in both boys and girls at the time they start elementary school. Sedentary behavior begins to increase at this time too, so elementary school age kids are already in need of interventions to maintain or increase their level of physical activity. (Reilly, 2016)
In general, kids are not being provided with adequate opportunities for general fitness and sports skills development.
Another problem is the competition level in youth sports. Sports become increasingly selective and competitive as children move into adolescence, so fewer activities exist for children who can’t or don’t want to compete at a higher level. And, children who specialize early are often under much more demanding time commitments and therefore miss out on social opportunities with peers and family. (Malina, 2009)
Overuse injuries and burnout are relatively common, especially among children on a continuous year-round schedule without diversification or downtime. Growing children between 8 and 14 are particularly susceptible to apophyseal injuries which occur between a major tendinous insertion and growth plate. These can occur at the heel (Sever’s disease), knee (Osgood-Schlatter's disease), hip, and elbow and often occur during growth spurts. Amennorhea, an absence of menstruation, in girls is associated with a higher risk of stress fractures. (John DiFirori, 2014) (Adirim TA, 2003)
Most importantly, Equal access to sports and fitness is another major issue that needs to be addressed. Economic factors can severely limit a child’s access to adequate sports and fitness programs. Up to 20 percent of parents say they cannot afford the fees and equipment associated with school and club sports programs. (Cunningham, 2014)
So the benefits of getting kids active in appropriate ways are clear, but it’s also clear that we aren’t doing enough to accomplish this for all kids. Here are some changes that need to be made:
Children who are more competent in fundamental movement skills are much more likely to participate in physical activity opportunities at lunch breaks, recess, and after school. Competency in locomotor (running, skipping, jumping) and object control (throwing, catching) skills not only promote participation in physical activity but also makes it more enjoyable.
Kids do not need to specialize at younger ages. Cognitive and motor skill developments occur at different times for different kids and do not often correlate with chronological age. Skill development should be emphasized over competition and winning. (John DiFirori, 2014)
Middle schools with intramural sports programs (rather than just varsity) have lower rates of sedentary students, higher rates of both light and vigorous activity, as well as a more overall use of the facilities. As a whole, school athletic and multipurpose facilities are underused. Partnering with local government and community organizations could help provide more opportunities for sports and physical activity to children in this age group. (Jason Bocarro, 2011)
Physical education professionals, as well as attendance at sporting events, have been shown to positively affect children’s future participation in organized sports. PE specialists in elementary school have been associated with greater sports-related outcomes, such as physical fitness and movement skills than non PE-specialized teachers. (Stewart A Vell, 2014)
According to Ang Chen, professor of kinesiology at UNC Greensboro, extensive research has shown that school based physical activity is the most powerful intervention when it comes to preventing childhood obesity. Preventing obesity is much more effective than trying to treat it with exercise. (Chen, 2012)
Physical literacy is a concept that means mastering basic movement and sports skills and is aimed at building healthy communities through sports. Poor health, obesity, and a lower income are just a few of the negative consequences that correlate with a sedentary lifestyle. Reaching entire communities, and especially children, with physical literacy can improve all kinds of quality of life indicators.
The failure to develop competent motor skills in childhood has long-term negative effects for those individuals as they reach adulthood and the reason is simple:
If you don’t know how to play or participate in fitness based activities, you are much less likely to do so. (Physical Literacy in the United States)
The good news is that having poor motor skills is not a life sentence.
Motor skills can be improved a great deal over time with instruction and practice. As with academics, if we want children to learn about literature, science, and math, they first must learn how to read, write, and count. If we want children to become more physically competent, they must first be taught to run, jump, throw, catch, climb, and crawl.
For prepubescent children, a general approach that includes all the basic motor patterns serves them far better than trying to develop any one quality as a specialty. This is the prime time to lay a well-rounded athletic foundation. Sports skills cover a lot of these basic motor patterns so simply participating in a variety of sports throughout the year in conjunction with basic calisthenics and strength training is all a child needs to achieve physical literacy.
For adolescence and beyond, skill training can become more specialized. Also, more intense power, strength, and endurance can be introduced to this age group, but until they are working with adult levels of strength and endurance, a more conservative approach is always more appropriate.
As trainers, we know how important fitness is and we want to see everyone, especially children, getting active. But what can we do about improving physical activity and sports for children? Here are some ideas:
Professional trainers can be an invaluable resource to the community.
According to the CDC:
“Frequently schools have the facilities but lack the personnel to deliver extracurricular physical activity programs. Community resources can expand existing school programs by providing intramural and club activities on school grounds. For example, community agencies and organizations can use school facilities for after-school physical fitness programs for children and adolescents, weight management programs for overweight or obese young people, and sports and recreation programs for young people with disabilities or chronic health conditions.” (Baranowski, March)
As a fitness trainer and coach, I have taught a number of strength and fitness classes and sports teams over the years, ranging from track and field and cross-country to strength and conditioning, powerlifting and weightlifting.
On a personal note, I can honestly say that teaching children has taught me more about training than any other experience.
When designing fitness classes, it is easy to select the best and only train those people, but when you can take on a group of kids of varying abilities and fitness levels and teach all of them a new skill, you really learn how to teach, and it is so rewarding.
I have spent time volunteering at my children’s elementary school, and I saw first-hand how much basic skill and fitness development not only helps build a child’s confidence but also the willingness and ability to participate in free play.
It helps to not only work on their weaknesses but also uncover their strengths. Many kids aren’t confident enough to play sports because they don’t think they can. If you are willing to take the time to teach them, they are eager learners.
Teaching kids good basic fitness and sports skills can be a lot of fun and are very rewarding, but there is a professional benefit as well. As a trainer, this kind of volunteer work gives you the opportunity to expand your professional skill set, cultivate some new experiences and target demographics, and it can be a great way to demonstrate your talents and knowledge to potential clients. In other words, you can be a big part of the solution to youth fitness in your community while also developing your business and professional reputation. And what’s not to like about that?
Adirim TA, C. T. (2003). Overview of injuries in the young athlete. Sports Medicine, 75-81.
Baranowski, T. (March, 7 1997). Guidelines for School and Community Programs to Promote Lifelong Physical Activity Among Young People. Retrieved from CDC.gov.
Chen, A. (2012). On childhood obesity prevention: "Exercise is medicine" vs. "exercise is vaccine". Journal of Sport and Health Science, 172-173.
Cunningham, M. S. (2014, March 27). Sport participation among underserved American youth. Retrieved from The Aspen Institute.
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