The harsh, cold winter weather is here and parents are beginning to ponder the best way their children can stay fit and healthy. If your child is not playing a winter sport, the safest way to get in shape for spring sports is going to the gym. Hitting the gym is also a great remedy for “cabin fever” and a great way to maintain a healthy weight for kids who are not engaged in sports.
To prevent injury, some words of caution…
I am frequently asked, “Is it safe for kids to lift weights”? Yes and no. Lifting weights for strength training is fine for kids over age 7 or 8 (with the additional suggestions below), but the activities of power lifting or weight lifting are not safe until growth has stopped. Growing children have open growth plates, which are areas of growing tissue near the ends of the long bones. When growth is complete (sometime during adolescence) the growth plates close and are replaced by solid bone. Because the growth plates are the weakest areas of the growing skeleton – even weaker than the nearby ligaments and tendons that connect bones to other bones and muscles – they are vulnerable to injury. Use of weights, therefore, should be limited to an amount that is no more than a child’s own weight.
The safest way to guard against excessive use of weights is via the “old-fashioned” resistance exercises such as push-ups and chin-ups. Use of free weights should start with light weights while learning the proper technique, and the amount of weight can then gradually be increased. With free weights, elastic tubing and gym machines, all kids (and adults) should receive proper training from a fitness instructor or trainer before initiating an exercise regimen.
A few additional suggestions that should always be followed:
- Stretch! Flexibility is key in preventing injury. Painful growth plate conditions in growing kids such as Osgood-Schlatter disease (knee) and Severs disease (heel) can be prevented or lessened in severity with loose hamstrings and calf muscles, respectively. A 10-15 minute warm-up and 10-15 minute cool-down period is recommended.
- Don’t forget about the core. Strengthening and stretching the muscles of the lower back, abdomen and buttocks improves balance.
- Avoid gyms where performance-enhancing substances are encouraged. Protein supplements and creatine add bulk to muscles (via water ballooning muscles) but do not increase strength. And like anabolic steroids, these supplements can cause injury to internal organs.
- To avoid overuse injuries, varying exercise routines is vital. Switch up the aerobic workout by using ellipticals, bikes, treadmills and other equipment on a rotating schedule. Strength training routines are recommended only 3 days a week.
- Another source of overuse injuries in kids is the trend toward proficiency in one sport. It is now possible to engage in a single sport for 12 months of the year. By middle school, many young athletes play their favorite sport not only all year long but also on more than one team. Joints become overworked causing tendonitis (for swimmers, it usually occurs in the shoulders; for pitchers, in the elbows; and for ballet dancers, the hips). Bones can also become stressed, causing fractures. Taking a few months off not only rests the overused muscles and bones, but also prevents “burnout.”
- But complete inactivity is not suggested, so winter at the gym is the perfect season for athletes to cross train. Remember: even the pros have an off season!
Dr. Jessica Rubinstein practices pediatrics for Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates at Concord Hillside Medical Associates in Harvard, Massachusetts. She is also the Chairperson of Pediatrics at Emerson Hospital in Concord and the school physician for the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District. Dr. Rubinstein enjoys caring for all ages of children; she has a strong interest in caring for adolescents, especially office gynecological visits and eating disorders. To stay active, Dr. Rubinstein enjoys bicycling and downhill skiing; in the winter, she goes to the gym three times a week.