Kids, Fitness and Sports: A Call to Action for the Fitness Community

  • Sara Fleming
  • |
  • August 9, 2017

Sports and Kids

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.  

Kids who exercise regularly tend to do better in school and have better relationships with their peers as well as better overall health.    

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:

  • The physical and psychological benefits of exercise exist regardless of the level of competition—so recreational sports and clubs are just as beneficial as more competitive team sports. (Rochelle M Eime, 2013)
  • In cross-sectional studies involving elementary school children, researchers found a correlation between gross motor competency and academic achievement. Short duration physical activity enhances concentration and attention in school children, but when that physical activity includes exercises that challenge coordination, the benefit is significantly enhanced.  (Luis Lopes, 2012)
  • In a study in Iceland, researchers found that participation in organized activities and sports in teens lowered drug and alcohol abuse. Physical activity gives kids a way to deal with the emotions that can contribute to substance abuse such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and boredom. Over a 20 year period, a multifaceted approach that included access to sports and other group activities such as dance, music, and art, the percentage of Icelandic teens drinking and doing drugs dropped from 40% to roughly 5%. (Young, 2017)

But Not All Kids Have Access to Appropriate Physical Activity

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:

  • Skill and general fitness development
  • Time for adequate recovery
  • Practices that promote injury avoidance
  • Strategies for social development
  • Age-appropriate levels of competition only

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)

Here’s What Needs to Change

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Sports and Kids

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:

  1. Kids need more access to opportunities for physical activity and general skill development beginning at a young age.

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.  

  1. Coaches and parents must understand the concept of sports readiness.

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)

  1. We need more middle school-level IM sports.

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)

  1. Children need access to a PE specialist in elementary school.

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)

  1. Physical activity must be promoted in school to reduce obesity rates.

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)

The Idea of Physical Literacy

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.

Here’s How You Can Help

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:

  • Volunteer to work with your local school’s PE teacher with PE or to help lead fitness and sports based games at recess.
  • Start up or volunteer with an IM sports league in your community.
  • Design an after-school fitness or sports skills program.
  • Develop and lead a fitness or sports skills program at a local community center.

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.

Drabik, J. (1996). Children and Sports Training. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Company, Inc.

Facts: Sports Activity and Children. (2017, March 20). Retrieved from The Aspen Institute: Project Play: https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/the-facts

Gambetta, V. (2007). Athletic Development. Champagne, IL: Human Kinetics.

Jason Bocarro, M. K. (2011). School sport policy and school-based physical activity environments and their association with observed physical activity in middle school children. Health and Place.

John DiFirori, H. B. (2014). Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: a position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 287-288.

Kristen Cohen, P. M. (2014). Fundamental movement skills and physical activity among children living in low-income communities: a cross-sectional study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 11:49.

Luis Lopes, R. S. (2012). Associations between gross Motor Coordination and Academic Achievement in elementary school children. Human Movement Science, 9-20.

Malina, R. (2009). Children and Adolescents in Sport Culture: The Overwhelming Majority to the Select Few. Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness, S1-S10.

Pate, E. K. (2012 ). Physical activity and academic achievement in children: A historical perspective. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 160-169.

Paul D. Loprinzi, B. J. (2012). Benefits and Environmental Determinants of Physical Activity in Children and Adolescents. Obesity Facts, 567-610.

Physical Literacy in the United States. (n.d.). The Aspen Institute: Project PLAY. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from 

Reilly, J. J. (2016). When does it all go wrong? Longitudinal studies of changes in moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity across childhood and adolescence. Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness, 1-6.

Rochelle M Eime, J. A. (2013). A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 10:98.

Saskia J te Velde, I. D.-I. (2007). Patterns in sedentary and exercise behaviors and associations with overweight in 9-14 year old boys and girls-a cross-sectional study. BMC Public Health, 7:16.

Stewart A Vell, D. P. (2014). Socio-ecological predictors of participation and dropout of organised sports during childhood. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 11:62.

Susanna Geidne, M. Q. (2013). The youth sports club as a health-promoting setting: An integrative review of research. Scandanavian Journal of Public Health, 269-283.

Young, E. (2017, January 19). How Iceland Got Teens to Say No to Drugs. The Atlantic.

About Sara Fleming

Sara Fleming is an ISSA Certified Fitness Trainer, Instructor and USA Weightlifting coach. In addition to being the wife of an ER physician and mother of three children, Sara trains people from all walks of life including youth athletes, middle aged fitness enthusiasts, national and world level weightlifters and powerlifters. Sara is also the co-author of the newly released ISSA Group Fitness course.

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