How Keeping Children Active Now Pays Significant Dividends Later in Life
Teaching the next generation to get up and moving will keep them healthy into adulthood.
I have fond memories of my childhood in the South Side, and a lot of them involve walking.
Walking to the park, the 22nd Street pool, up the endless city steps. My calves were like rocks.
Those were the good old days before cell phones and computers; a time when kids wanted to play outside no matter the season.
Nowadays there are more opportunities to get sucked into a sedentary lifestyle — new-and-improved video gaming systems, streaming services, fast food restaurants and food and grocery delivery services. The pandemic also normalized work-from-home positions, so some people can literally never leave the comfort of their own homes.
But, what fun is that?
Children especially need to be heavily active in their youth so they can keep their growing bodies healthy. According to KidsHealth, children and teens ages 6 to 17 should get 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. This should include muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activities at least three days a week.
This doesn’t require spending hours in a gym. Children can get their exercise by playing outside, riding bikes or at soccer practice. Once children get a little older, they can start thinking about incorporating an exercise regimen.
Frank Velasquez Jr., director of AHN Sports Performance, encourages parents to start thinking of age-appropriate exercise when their children are in middle school.
“This will help to prepare them for when they get into high school, especially if they are athletes,” he says.
“Young kids will get exercise through playing. In middle school, we start them on low-resistance bands, then move them to light weights. We are careful not to load the skeleton prematurely because it could close up their growth plates,” he adds.
He also recommends if a child plays sports year-round to only play one sport each season to avoid overusing the body, especially the hips.
It’s also crucial to teach children how to eat properly for muscle building and energy, as well as the importance of hydration and sleep.
“Nine to 11 hours of sleep is recommended when our bodies are recovering and when our bones are growing,” Velasquez notes. “This also helps our muscles repair themselves and gives our brains a rest.”
Dr. Pamela Schoemer, medical director of Healthy Habits 4 Life and of Quality, Safety and Outcomes at UPMC Children’s Community Pediatrics, says now that life is more scheduled, it’s important for families to make exercise a priority.
“It’s not just about losing weight. It’s about building bone endurance and strength,” she says. “Exercise also improves our mood, and can reduce depression and anxiety.”
She recommends starting activities in shorter durations and building them from there.
“We can make it fun, like climbing a tree or playing tug-of-war. Anything that uses groups of muscles. But, if your child isn’t really active and you tell them to run for an hour, they won’t enjoy it.”
Obesity impacts 19% of children and adolescents and nearly 42% of adults in the U.S., according to information released by The Obesity Society.
“It’s a number that’s always rising,” Schoemer adds. “Exercise, hydration and lifestyle choices are all part of improving obesity.”
Parents should think of themselves as role models for their children, she says.
“You can’t stop at McDonald’s, get yourself a meal and tell your child they can’t have one. Parents should make a plan and their children should be part of that plan. That will contribute to their successes.”
Schoemer recommends speaking with your child’s pediatrician to set realistic goals, such as eliminating snacks after 7 p.m. on school nights for a month to see if there is a change in how they feel.
“It’s all about setting smart goals, measuring and recording to track your progress,” she adds. “Celebrate the small wins and if something doesn’t work, try something else. Don’t quit.”
A routine is also beneficial for children who are underweight. She says it’s best to assure that your child is getting an adequate amount of calories and protein. The right balance of activity can help them build muscle and add some pounds, if needed.
“Supplements should not be relied upon solely for calorie intake,” she says. “This way, you’re not teaching them they can drink their calories instead of eating a balanced meal. Always consult with your medical provider for the best plan to move forward with any regimen.”
Velasquez says the trainers at AHN can help foster a love of staying active in young people.
“Exercise is a tool for life; we want to make it fun for them so they have a good experience early on,” he says. “We help people reach their goals, but it takes time. We live in a society where you push a button and something happens instantly. That doesn’t happen with the body.”
He agrees children are a product of their environment.
“Parents should be getting their kids out of the house,” he says. “It’s not just up to the kids; if you want them to be this, that or the other, you have to go out and do it. It’s that monkey-see, monkey-do mentality. Put up a basketball hoop in the driveway, kick a soccer ball around with them, go to the playground or get them into an organized sport. Try it all and see what sticks. As a parent, I feel it’s my responsibility to help them find their passion so they can take it, run with it and make it their own.”