Our weekly fitness column, “Weekly Wellness,” is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, talks about why kids need to look at physical activity as just a regular part of living.
Before I decided to pursue my Masters degree in Exercise Physiology and eventually become a trainer and strength coach, I had plans on becoming a physical education teacher. I attained a Bachelors degree in Physical Education, but my passion for learning about the human body’s anatomy and physiology in relation to physical exercise really captivated me. I got out of college and trained adults and managed a gym for a while, but now my career is taking me back in the direction of children’s physical education, and I am happier and more satisfied than I have ever been working in fitness. It is funny how life works sometimes.
In a way, I am a teacher, just not in the organized classroom setting. I work with children one-on-one and in group situations, teaching them about becoming healthy, strong, fast, mobile and just attaining greater physical fitness and hopefully helping to establish a physically fit mindset for their entire lives. At least, that is how I look at what I do for a living. I want children to develop a love for physical exercise, which is essentially teaching them to love and respect their bodies now at an early age. My dream is that this carries into adolescence and young adulthood.
We know we have an issue in this country with physical self-image, fitness (or lack-there-of), overweightness, obesity and our dietary habits. As a result of these problems, is it really surprising to hear that one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese, nearly triple the rate in 1963. Not only this, but childhood obesity is now the number one health concern among parents in the United States, topping drug abuse and smoking. After all, when you establish addictive habits (positive or negative) at a very young age, they are incredibly difficult to reverse as an adult. This is why I am so passionate about setting children up with a lifetime of healthy physical habits.
Physical exercise should not be viewed as a burden. There needs to be a mental shift in how we view physical exertion for both parents and kids. To put it frankly, it is our responsibility to take care of our physical well-being. We didn’t do anything to earn our lives and bodies on this earth, and therefore our very lives and bodies are gifts. Gifts that must be cared for and respected and guarded and cultivated. Physical exercise is a responsibility and privilege, not a burden. I hope to make children aware of this reality.
Programs for physical fitness should certainly have elements of fun and excitement. And of course kids love games, so including sports or game-playing is a good way to get kids moving. Child athletes need specific training protocols to excel at their chosen sport(s), and this is a great way for children to stay healthy. But what do you do for the general population of children who desperately need a self-image shift and daily, physical exercise to boost self-esteem and endorphins (happiness hormones) and keep them trim and healthy?
In general, children’s fitness programs should include elements of strength training (and by strength training I mean bodyweight calisthenics like proper push ups, squats, lunges, planks, chin ups), elements of cardiovascular conditioning, elements of mobility and flexibility, and hopefully a game or two blending some of these elements into one big fitness adventure. I have written about the importance of getting our kids strong and mobile in articles past, so I will not beat an old drum.
I feel strongly, however, that there needs to be less of an emphasis on just playing sports in physical education and more of an emphasis on what children desperately need – actual measureable improvements in fitness over time. It would be very helpful if fitness tests were performed on the bodyweight squat, for example. This one exercise is crucial for developing strong legs and glutes, improving mobility and balance, and helping to make a child more stable and athletic. Why are we not teaching kids how to squat properly? Also, why are we not teaching kids how to excel at performing the classic chin up? Most kids that I train for the first time are nowhere near strong enough to perform a full chin up. Many years ago this was not the case. This is a key fundamental upper-body strength movement that is essential for shoulder health and upper body posture, yet it is not required in fitness programs.
If children cannot perform crucial strength movements with proper form – the big three being a squat, a push up, and a chin up – then they are either weak or immobile, and run the risk of developing injuries when playing sports or simply doing normal daily activities. Couple that with vast amounts of sitting time (I mentioned the ill-effects of sitting in the last article) and overeating foods with empty calories, and we run into our current problem, weak, immobile, poorly-balanced, overweight children with attention issues and other health problems that are normally not seen until adulthood.
Above all, what disturbs me the most is the disconnect between the physical and the mental/emotional health of children. We are under nourishing our children physically and over stimulating their brains with high amounts of class time sitting, reading and test taking (not to mention TV, smartphones, and video games). Our academic scores are starting to slip compared to other countries. I am sure there are many reasons for this trend, and I do not pretend to know the solution.
I can only offer one humble opinion as a trainer who has worked with hundreds of children in fitness – perhaps these kids need less pressure in the academic area and more focus on improving their physical health with real, solid, functional and life-applicable fitness training. This will help reduce their stress, improve their internal physical markers (blood pressure, blood triglycerides), improve their ability to focus in the classroom, improve their daily happiness and their self-image, and improve their self-confidence as unique human beings.
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.