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"The Benefits of Exercise and Sports Participation for Kids"   - Child Health -

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 - The Benefits of Exercise and Sports Participation for Kids -

The Benefits of Exercise and Sports Participation for Kids


Any child in America today that decides to participate in sports usually does so for one simple reason. FUN. Yeah, that pretty much covers it. The trouble-free innocence of youth can be fascinating, can't it?

Now, if only the decision was that elementary for parents, who are often unsure of the impact that exercise and sports may have on their child's physical development and academic achievement. Fortunately for parents, as research can attest, exercise and sports are rare institutions that offer tremendous social relationships, physical challenges, and honest competition. There is even evidence that sports can increase a child's self-esteem and academic performance while decreasing the likelihood of disease and drug use. Then again, to a child, all of these attributes equal just one desirable characteristic - fun.

While the desire for fun reigns supreme in a child's decision to participate in sports, the present day migration of young athletes into the professional arena has forever distorted the perceived innocence of gamesmanship. The dream to one day compete professionally, though ever-present in the minds of children, has taken an unprecedented grasp on the preparation and development of America's youth. In fact, the dream is now being realized at younger ages than ever before, leaving parents with tremendously difficult decisions.

Only in recent times have parents been forced to decide, at ages as early as eight, if their child should specialize in one sport, join a club team, or attend specialty camps. At one end of the spectrum sits the possibility of enhancing their skills and athletic ability to the point of receiving a college scholarship or professional offer. At the other is the more likely scenario - that their athletic careers may end in high school (or before) and that specialization may, in addition to the stress of a lengthy time commitment and travel burdens, exact a hefty financial toll.

Regardless of these uncertainties present in the amateur sports world, one thing is certain. Athletic participation and training for sports provide a myriad of benefits that few, if any, organizations can offer. As it turns out, the kids had it right all along. Focus on fun, and they excel in all facets of life.

Social, Academic, and Psychological Benefits

But it goes way beyond health, my friend. According to researchers at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, kids that play sports actually do better in school and have enhanced social skills. Sports also help prevent drug and alcohol abuse, and children that participate in sports are less likely to smart smoking and, if they do smoke, are more likely to quit.

Research on the benefits of sports and exercise for girls in particular has been especially promising. The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports has reported that athletically active girls develop increased self-esteem and confidence, are more likely to finish high school and college, and have a healthier body image. The Women's Sports Foundation has also found that females participating in sports are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers and they suffer less depression. Furthermore, there is evidence that athletic activity can decrease the likelihood of developing breast cancer and osteoporosis.

Fortunately for females, given the increased popularity of women's collegiate, professional and Olympic sporting events, the opportunities to participate in sports as children are more promising than ever before.

The social benefits are almost too many to count. How can you possibly measure the value and satisfaction derived from working hard and mastering a skill? We've all done it, and the feeling is exhilarating, regardless of age. With sports and exercise, a child has the opportunity to experience this on almost a daily basis. On the same note, proficient skill acquisition allows children to value the accomplishments of their body and mind, making further challenges all the less daunting. These are attributes that simply can't be measured. Neither can developing a sense of community through sports, bonding with new friends and teammates, and improving relationships with adults. Sports also allow children to take on leadership roles, handle adversity, and improve their time management.

Benefits of Resistance Training

Some interesting new research is now discovering the vast array of benefits provided by resistance training. These include stronger bones,enhanced strength, and improved athletic ability. However, when parents ask about the risks and benefits of weight training for children, they're always concerned about potential damage to bone growth. Sadly, this stems from a myth that resistance training in children will lead to the premature closure of the end plates of long bones, thereby stunting their growth. In reality, any damage to these growth plates is usually a result of fractures that occur from repeated maximal lifts, lack of adult supervision, and improper lifting techniques. Overall, the risk of injury in children who train with weights is actually quite low, as long as appropriate training guidelines are followed.

As an example, in a study that examined over 1,500 sports injuries to children over a one year period, only 0.7% were a result of resistance training. Perhaps not surprisingly, football, wrestling and gymnastics topped the list. Furthermore, researchers have concluded that weight training is significantly safer than many other sports and activities.

Interestingly, proper weight training and exercise can actually improve bone strength. Bone, and ligament and muscle for that matter, is a dynamic connective tissue that responds favorably to the stresses placed upon it. Certainly you've heard of the phrase, "Use it or lose it." That essentially describes bone. The more you "pound" it, the stronger it becomes. For example, researchers in the Netherlands have reported that high-impact strength training and explosive exercise, such as skipping, running, and jumping, are more effective for bone development than activities like walking, bicycling, and swimming. They concluded that bone responds best to exercise characterized by unexpected high loads of relatively short duration. This is, in fact, exactly what takes place in sports such as baseball, football, and basketball. The researchers went as far as to espouse weight bearing activity and high impact strength training for both boys and girls, citing the fact that the earlier a child starts with physical activity, the more bone that's accumulated.

Evidence is also quite sound in regards to the strength producing aspects of weight training. There is no shortage of data to conclude that resistance training can significantly improve trength in children, well beyond what occurs typically during natural development. This is apparent even in children as young as six! urthermore, gains of roughly 30-50% can be expected (in boys and girls) with a quality exercise program in just a 2-4 month period. That added strength isn't just for show, either. Resistance training also improves selected motor skills, such as the vertical jump and long jump, and increases speed in sprints and agility runs.

Weight Training for Injury Prevention

Some studies have demonstrated a decreased injury rate in adolescents who have undergone resistance training, even in contact sports such as high school football. In one report using high school male and female athletes, the injury rate for those who performed weight training was 26.2%, versus a 72.4% rate of injury for those who did not train. That's quite a striking difference. Also, those who weight trained and still became injured were able to recover twice as fast. It must be stated that, like bone, other structures such as muscles, tendons, and ligaments also respond favorably to stresses induced by weight training. This may explain the positive results of these studies.

It's refreshing that, after years of discouraging media propaganda regarding children and weight training, there is now evidence that resistance training is an effective mechanism for preventing injury in children and adolescents. Of course, this is assuming that exercises are performed correctly and programs are designed appropriately. Therefore, parental supervision and use of qualified instructors cannot be overlooked.

Since much has been mentioned about the importance of a properly designed training program, what exactly is an appropriate regimen for children? Although that's a complicated question that is somewhat beyond the depth of this article, some basic tenets can be followed. First of all, it should be stated that the most common injuries to children that weight train are joint strains and muscle strains of the low back. While this is likely due to poor technique, it may also stem from a lack of "core" training. Core training should be a top priority in children who wish to lift weights, and it involves general strengthening of the muscles surrounding the abdomen and low back. This is extremely important since this is the "hub" or base of operations for the extremities - without a strong core, the advancement of muscle imbalances and the chance of injury are more likely. Also, core development is extremely important for sports, since any forces going from the legs to the upper body or vice versa must be transferred by the core muscles. By the way, this happens in nearly every sport, so core training is mandatory.

When a child is ready to engage in weight training (they will be when they are mentally and physically ready for sports), exercises should focus on proper technique, keeping loads moderate and using a high number of repetitions (10-20). The entire body should be trained to promote balance, maximal loads should be avoided, and stretching and calisthenics should be incorporated. Research has found that this type of training is favorable for decreasing blood pressure, body fatness and blood lipids.

The Benefits and Pitfalls of Sports Specialization

One of the more difficult decisions a parent has to make regarding a child's athletic career involves the present day obsession with sports specialization (the practice of focusing increased time, instruction, and training specifically for one sport). From Olympic hopefuls to mega-stars like Tiger Woods, specialization has made superstar athletes out of high school students. Many even begin their chosen sport as toddlers, and while a select few go on to make millions, many more suffer from injuries or burn-out. It's simply impossible to forecast, as a child, if his or her talents are prolific enough to one day arrive at super stardom. Nevertheless, specialization via "elite" coaching and clubs is here to stay.

The International Federation of Sports Medicine has declared that specialization has no educational or physiological justification. Many other organizations have concurred, and The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends unstructured play and a variety of sporting activities, stating that it promotes creativity.

And then there's the question of whether specialization even works. Even if it does, is it logical to specialize when only a small handful of athletes will ever achieve professional status? Researchers have stated that performance at one age of childhood is not even a reliable predictor of performance just two to five years later. Furthermore, Soviet studies (they've been specializing a lot longer than we have!) have shown that most young athletes who specialize attain their best performance by age 16, plus they're more likely to quit their sport sooner than athletes who engage in diverse programs. Other researchers have concluded that specialization carries no performance related advantages, and that some athletes suffer from social isolation, unhealthy self-concepts, and burn-out.

 - The Benefits of Exercise and Sports Participation for Kids -

The Bottom Line: Have Fun

Regardless of any future goals or prospects, playing sports should be an enjoyable experience for both children and parents. Too often, the pressures of advancement take precedence over the many dynamic aspects of sport. Fortunately for parents, sports offer so much more than competition, and they can be assured knowing their time and investments will most certainly foster lifelong rewards. Plus, sports are just plain fun - a child's greatest reward of all.



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* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.




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