Weekly Wellness: The quickest way to get your kids in shape

Sun-Times Media file photo
Sun-Times Media file photo

Our weekly fitness column, “Weekly Wellness,” is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, discusses how to get your kids eating right (hint: lots of protein) and why kids don’t need to do much fitness-wise to stay healthy, just keep moving!

As a trainer of children and adults of all ages, I have realized there are more effective ways of improving a child’s fitness level compared to adults. Many of the basic concepts apply but, for kids, I have narrowed the list down to several key concepts to start applying immediately that will have dramatic effects on a child’s fitness level and body fat reduction, if needed.

What to Eat, and What Not to Eat

Proper nutrition is vital for children. Proper nutrition for children is not just vital for fat loss and improving fitness, but also for healthy growth and decreasing the occurrence of illnesses. When working with children, I have them tell me what they eat daily. When I am working with a child who is new to our program, the diet almost always breaks down as follows: 80 percent carbohydrate and half of these carbs coming from refined white sugar, 5 percent protein and 15 percent fat. Now, I do not have kids count calories or grams. I am against this, as I believe this leads to dietary anxiety and eating disorders for these young, developing minds. I simply ask them to eat certain foods and cut out other certain foods.

Foods that children absolutely need to cut out of the diet are foods that are high in sugar or high fructose corn syrup. I have found that once I can get a child to avoid almost all sugar, they instantly lean out and have more energy. The effect is not quite as dramatic on adults, but for children it is the single greatest factor that will influence how they feel and how lean they are. Common sugar laden foods and drinks on this list for kids are Gatorade (one whole bottle has about 40 grams of sugar), granola bars, fruit snacks, soda and juice. It’s nearly impossible to avoid all processed snack foods (for example, oatmeal is extremely healthy but still processed) but there are certainly better options than others.

Healthy carbohydrate foods that are easy for kids to make include:

• Oatmeal — not the sugary kind

• Sprouted grain bread — peanut butter and jelly

• Fruits like bananas and apples

Add Protein to you Kids’ Diets

Continuing on with nutrition, the second greatest factor that will improve a child’s body composition is to be sure they understand where and how to get protein in their diets. I teach children to consume protein at every single meal. Protein helps regulate their blood sugar and keeps them from crashing in a workout or game, and can even help them to focus in school. Protein keeps them full and growing strong, and reduces sugar cravings as a result of having a fuller stomach. 

The easiest sources for kids are:

• Eggs 

• Greek yogurt

• Sprouted grain high protein bread like Ezekiel 4:9 breads

• Natural deli meat

Get Up and Get Movin’

Once the nutritional foundation is established, it is time to get kids moving daily. For kids that are overweight, and definitely need fat loss, I recommend walking, very light jogging for a limited distance (no more than half a mile per day), and bodyweight calisthenics like modified push ups, modified pull ups, squats, lunges, jumping jacks, burpees and sit ups. Having an overweight child jog or run can really beat up their joints from their extra weight, so ongoing cardiovascular work should be walking for 30-60 minutes, swimming or biking (with some intensity). Whichever way, they need 30-60 minutes of daily physical movement in some form. 

Children that are not overweight, but still need improvements in fitness, are only sometimes ready to start running or sprinting. I usually prescribe multiple rounds of short sprints, or moderate distance, running up to a quarter mile at a time, as fast as possible. Many of these children that are naturally thin are also very weak, so it is important to get them strength training immediately, otherwise the running or sprinting can really pound on the joints instead of the muscles. Not all kids should be blindly told to run one or two miles every day, especially if they are either overweight or thin to the point they are very weak in the legs and core. It is important to have a fitness assessment for children to determine what type of physical activity they may be ready to handle.

Don’t Sit for Too Long

Lastly, for all children, it is vital they do not sit for a very long time. Children that sit are children that end up tight. For adults, science has shown that sitting for extended periods of time increases chances of heart disease by over 50 percent. What effect this has on children has not been theorized, but I really don’t think it needs to be proven. Sitting encourages terrible posture and a tight body, especially in the glutes, hip flexors, upper back and shoulders. To counteract all of this sitting, that is almost unavoidable, in our way of life, kids need daily flexibility/mobility exercises to stay limber. The child’s body should be naturally supple and move gracefully. It really bothers me to have a child come in to my facility very tight, and having limited range of motion in their young bodies, not to mention nagging knee or hip or back pain. These are health symptoms that are typical in older adults, and now I’m starting to see children develop these same physical problems. Something has to change, and less sitting and more stretching is the greatest step to take.

The Takeaway: To get kids in shape it really takes less work than an adult.  Their young bodies are craving fitness, whereas the out of shape adult body will essentially resist fitness from years of not having it. The greatest factors that will rapidly improve a child’s fitness are as follows:  eliminate refined sugar (one small sugar treat per day is what I limit my child clients to), get protein at every single meal, either daily running/sprinting or walking depending on current fitness level for 30-60 minutes, bodyweight strength calisthenics three or more days per week for 20-30 minutes, no sitting for more than an hour at a time and 5-10 minutes of daily stretching/mobility exercises to keep them loose and limber.

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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