Fitness as Medicine: What’s Best for Your Child?

Posted by Tiffanie Sperling in Fitness, Health

Less than 1/3 of children in the US are “active to a healthy level”, which The Sports and Fitness Industry Association defines as 25 minutes of high-calorie-burning physical activity three times a week.  This lack of physical activity has resulted in an epic increase in childhood obesity rates and will eventually lead to billions of dollars spent in healthcare costs as this generation experiences higher rates of chronic illnesses including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

If prevention is as simple as participating in physical activity for less time than it takes to watch a cartoon, why are 66% of our children still missing the mark?

As exercise professionals, we see most kids not enjoying exercise or not getting results out of what is thought to be beneficial exercise. So, how do you find the right activity to meet your child’s physical fitness goals and keep them engaged?  The first step is to understand that exercise is not a “one size fits all” prescription.  Children are different – their likes are different, their goals are different, their bodies are different and their exercise programs should be different.  It can be overwhelming! At enerGEEwhizz kids fitness, we specialize in customizing exercise programs to help each child reach their potential and realize success. We’ve broken down our recommendations for various groups of children and the benefits they will see by consistent participation in the right exercise program.

 

ADHD and Spectrum Disorder

Children with ADHD and Spectrum Disorders are two times as likely not to reach the recommended amounts of physical activity. This is unfortunate because they benefit from exercise even more than neurotypical children!  Ironically, the reasons most do not participate in fitness and sport are the very benefits they reap from consistent practice.

ADHD and Spectrum children often have limitations with balance and stability. Cognitively, they may not be able to plan ahead, anticipate, and respond in ways that allow for success. Children with autism can become overwhelmed by stimuli in a sports or fitness setting. However, if a program is planned and executed properly, all of these challenges can be managed and overcome to help these kids thrive.

 

Programs and activities that address the needs of motor skill development and postural control will be most beneficial.  Exercises should develop core strength and endurance, chest and shoulder flexibility, and upper back strength.  Sessions should encourage mastery and repetition of tasks and add new challenges gradually as the participant becomes more comfortable.  Research has shown that physical activities involving cognitive tasks or development are even more engaging.

Most importantly, the exercise must be led by someone educated and prepared for the potential stereotypical behaviors of the ADHD and Spectrum Disorder set.  Gentle integration of unfamiliar activity is important for success as is minimal “competition” with others until there is a confidence with performance.  Frustration can set in quite quickly and having mechanisms to overcome that reaction will benefit the child with ADHD or Spectrum Disorder as well as all other participants.  Giving the child time to acclimate to a new environment or activity is crucial for a positive outcome and desired results.

 

The Fitness Deprived

Access to onscreen entertainment 24 hours a day, 7 days per week makes it so easy nowadays for kids (and adults!) to become couch potatoes.  Habits are formed at a young age – a sedentary child has a much higher chance of becoming an inactive adult. Being sedentary as an adult can lead to health concerns such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.  An inactive lifestyle is not only a health concern, but a financial concern as the cost of healthcare rises.

Connection is a major component of exercise programs that have proven successful with previously sedentary or “at risk” children.  This connection can take many forms – a leader (coach, instructor, or mentor), family member, friend, or unfamiliar peer.  Both children and adults alike can attest to fact that exercising with a friend increases your accountability and the likelihood that you will continue the program. In addition, participating in an activity with unfamiliar peers oftentimes increases performance.  Regardless of whom the connection is with, exercising with another person or in a group setting increases the chances the child will continue and consider the program fun!

Another characteristic that appeals to this group is individual measurability.  Most inactive children do not seem to enjoy programs that are scored for competition against other participants, but will stick with those that measure their own individual improvement.  Seeing results helps to keep kids moving.

One of the most important aspects of an exercise program designed to appeal to this group is one that it builds confidence in their abilities.  Repetition and mastery of skills with gradual integration of additional challenges is key to success cognitively, physically, and mentally.  For children who enjoy more mentally than physically stimulating activities (reading, video games, music, etc.), confidence can also be built by performing physical activities that use cognitive skills for mastery.

 

While concepts like exergaming (exercise guided through a gaming console) are believed to be the answer for gaining the attention of this group, those programs done alone at home have proven to be ineffective long-term.  Most parents can attest to the fact that when a child is expected to find their own motivation to participate, they tend not to stick to the program or to cheat through it.  What has been quite successful, though, is using technology in more of a “game-like” environment, particularly when done in a group rather than individually.

 

Kids with Athletic Prowess

For most kids with athletic talents, they are almost “born to move” and it may seem like they wouldn’t even need a formalized fitness program.  They are playing sports, so they are already fit, right?  Unfortunately, this is not the case and kids involved in sports, especially those specializing at a young age, need a fitness program that addresses their unique needs as athletes and as children.

Balance, also known as postural control, is the ability of maintaining, achieving or restoring a state of balance during any posture or activity.  This type of control has been proven in research involving elite and professional athletes to be a major predictor of long-term athletic success and injury prevention.  Young athletes need programs that address balance in the most basic form rather than jumping ahead into exercises developed for adults who have already mastered those skills.  Kids have not developed in the same way as adults – they need to participate in programs that are designed for their specific developmental needs.

 

 

Similar to the foundational need of balance development, youth athletes need programs that strengthen and build proper range of motion of the core.  The core is comprised of the abdominal region, hips, and lower back.  The core is the area of the body that all other areas depend on as it is the center or the base of support.  Many performance issues and injuries young athletes encounter are caused by imbalances in their core.  Programs that address these individual needs will help prevent problems down the road that may be very difficult or impossible to reverse.

No matter what category a child falls into, the main thing that should be considered is that each one has individual strengths and challenges, individual likes and dislikes, and thereby needs an individualized fitness program to address their uniqueness.  Always keep in mind that they are children (not mini-adults) and that the main focus should be on having FUN!  You can help them find their way to lifelong love of fitness!

I had so much fun, I wish I could live here!

Tyler Coslow, Age 10, Chicago, IL