Weekly Wellness: The necessity of strength training for kids

<p>Sun-Times Media file photo</p>

Sun-Times Media file photo

Our weekly fitness column, “Weekly Wellness,” is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, talks about why strength training is a must for kids of all ages.

In previous articles, we discussed why it is crucial to strength train for adults. Kids, as it turns out, need strength training as well. Does this come as a surprise? It should not. In our day-to-day lives, we are doing more sitting (which has been shown to increase the occurrence of heart disease significantly) and are becoming tighter, weaker and fatter as a society. Are kids really that different? Definitely not. In fact, I fear we are setting up kids to be the most physically incapable generation in American history to date.

I have personally trained hundreds of young athletes. I use the term “athlete” loosely, as most kids that play sports are playing multiple sports (at least the younger ones) and some kids are not playing sports at all. Their parents are just starting to recognize the benefits of regular physical exertion for themselves and their children, which is a great sign. But to put this in perspective, these kids have a different life now as they grow up than generations past. When I was a kid back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was outside running, riding my bike, building forts, climbing trees, playing every pickup game imaginable and just moving around, which burned calories all day.

A lot of kids now have thoughts like, “Hey, the latest Call of Duty game is out.” Or, “Oh, PlayStation has their 8th edition. Time to throw out the 7th, and then spend lots of time sitting mastering the new games made for the 8th edition.” Kids are sitting more and turning their brains to mush. Kids’ muscles are becoming soft and weak. Kids don’t seem to mind too much though. They can simply sit and “play” on a smartphone. Features on these phones include games, YouTube, Vine, Snapchat and just general life distractions that all have one common denominator – kids spend more time sitting and less time engaged with the environment outdoors. Let’s face it, kids want to play during their free time. So if they are not playing on their gadgets, then the next logical choice of play is physical activity. At least, it used to be.

I think I need to drill this home about sitting. Sitting promotes terrible health, plain and simple. And this is regardless of how much physical activity you do at other times. The Mayo Clinic said that “a nearly 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause” is the result of prolonged sitting. How much sitting exactly? A measly four hours a day. Four hours!  That is not that long! Not only this, but this same number of hours of sitting carries with it “about a 125 percent increased risk of events associated with cardiovascular disease, such as chest pain (angina) or heart attack.”  

That is just downright scary and should be a huge eye-opener for our children and us. A sitting, sedentary body preserves calories. It slows the metabolic rate of the body. It promotes muscle degeneration, a weak core, a tight upper back and neck, an achy lower back, poor circulation in the legs (think blood clots from lack of circulation) and is essentially a depressing activity. If we had all of our children in this country doing 3-4 hours of daily physical activity interspersed with the classroom/learning hours, we would likely have a much healthier nation in twenty years.  

This probably is never going to happen. This is where organized physical training has to step up to the plate and offer good, functionally-based fitness programs to kids at least a couple days a week at a good price, so that many kids have the opportunity to live a healthy life.  

So how does all of this relate to strength training for kids? Well, kids sitting for too long end up tight and weak. Then they specialize in a certain sport at too young of an age, and end up getting hurt in that sport because of over-use injuries from thousands of repetitive motions that grind away at the joints. ACL injuries in kids (especially girls) are at an all time high. Shoulders and elbows are being ripped apart from over-throwing. Kid athletes do not need more of the same – more footwork, more agility work, more speed work, more, more, more. All parents/guardians/coaches are doing is ingraining sloppy movement patterns into a weak, tight body that will hinder athletic performance and most likely injure kids.

What all kids need, regardless of if they are an athlete or not, is increased strength and mobility. All other aspects of fitness (like speed, quickness, explosiveness, cardiovascular fitness) are built on top of the vitally necessary foundation of muscular strength. Let me say this another way – if you want a kid to be faster, you do not just have her/him sprint until (s)he throws up. What you must do is increase the kid’s force production – literally the ability for her/his major muscles to contract and exert force into the earth – and all the sudden you have a faster kid who moves better and is much more stable for all activities in life.

The Takeaway:

What needs to happen is general fitness for kids– proper, functional, mobility-based strength training that gets kids strong in the essential movement patterns of life. This will allow them to keep their metabolisms roaring, their muscles strong, their bodies supple, their flexibility high, their balance and coordination optimal, their attention spans and brain function at maximal levels, and their overall happiness and well-being at a mental state that all kids deserve in order to give them the best shot in life. Regular physical activity – strength training, mobility work, cardiovascular fitness – will enhance every aspect of a kid’s life and can help set them up for success in the classroom and put them in a confident frame of mind for every day life. This is a right that every kid deserves.

Matt Gallagher is the Fitness Director at MFC Sports Performance in Darien, which specializes in functional training for both adults and younger athletes. You can reach Matt by emailing him at Matt@MFCSportsPerformance.com

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