As you are undoubtedly aware, our nation is presently experiencing an epidemic of childhood obesity. Unfortunately, for every youth who is overfat, there are at least two who are underfit. With less emphasis on physical education, and even the elimination of recess in elementary schools, this sad situation is becoming progressively more prevalent.
Overweight children typically become overweight adults, and overweight adults have significantly higher risk of serious degenerative diseases, including high blood pressure, heart problems, stroke, diabetes, several types of cancer, low back pain, and arthritis. Even worse, many children already have beginning stages of cardiovascular disease. Likewise, osteoporosis is actually a childhood problem (insufficient bone development) that manifests itself in the adult years.
In addition to the medical concerns associated with childhood obesity, there are many related physiological problems. Overweight youth usually score poorly on fitness tests such as timed runs, vertical jumps, long jumps, push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and agility assessments. They generally don’t do well in endurance activities such as soccer, or in jumping activities such as basketball. They don’t even like to play tag because they are always “it.”
Psychologically, research shows that obese children score very low in self-image and self-confidence. They seldom play sports, organized or otherwise, and are less involved socially than their more fit peers. One recent study sadly revealed that children who are obese and children who suffer from cancer have similar outlooks on life.
One thing we know for sure, the old adage that kids will eventually outgrow their weight problem is seldom true in today’s sedentary society. With little activity time at school or at home, obese youth need all the help we can give them to enjoy the benefits of effective exercise. Of course, any exercise is better than no exercise, but for best results the exercise program should match the physical characteristics of children.
Youth, especially elementary school-aged children, have a distinctly different physiological pattern for performing physical activity. They exercise all-out for 30 to 60 seconds, then they rest. After a minute or two of recovery, they exercise all-out again for 30 to 60 seconds. They basically have an innate ability to exercise in an interval-training manner. Conversely, most young people do not fit the adult exercise model of a 5-minute warm-up, 30 minutes of continuous cycling or jogging, followed by a 5-minute cool-down.
One important physical activity that matches children’s physiological factors is strength exercise. They perform a 30 to 60 second set of strength exercise, rest a minute or two, then perform another set of strength exercise. In addition, heavier kids typically lift more weight than their lighter peers, making this one of the few activities in which overweight children experience success.
Another benefit of youth strength training is improved body composition. Unlike other forms of exercise, strength training builds muscle and bone resulting in a stronger musculoskeletal system and greater functional capacity. You may have heard that strength training is detrimental to muscle and bone development in children, but nothing could be farther from the truth. To the contrary, a recent nine-month study with nine year old girls showed four times as much bone mineral density increase in girls who performed strength exercise compared to those who did other types of physical activity (6.2% vs. 1.4% increased BMD). In fact, every research study published on youth strength training has shown positive results, with no reports of injury or developmental delay.
Of course, the youth strength training research programs are highly supervised, and this is indeed the key to safe and successful exercise experiences. For example, the South Shore YMCA in Massachusetts has run multiple strength training programs for children (ages 7 through 11) and young teens (ages 12 through 14) for the past 19 years with no injuries and very few dropouts. In fact, the attendance rate has consistently exceeded 90 percent, indicating that boys and girls respond favorably to well-conducted programs of strength exercise.
While some facilities have the advantage of using youth-sized strength training machines, children can attain excellent results with other types of resistance equipment including free-weights, elastic bands, medicine balls and Bow-Flex devices. Careful supervision, gradual progression and proper technique are the critical training components for children.
With respect to exercise progression, boys and girls should use a resistance that they can lift between 10 and 15 repetitions. When they complete 15 repetitions, the resistance should be increased by approximately five percent.
Proper training technique includes good posture, slow exercise speed, and full exercise range, as well as continuous breathing on every repetition. Fast reps, short reps, breathholding and squirming actions should be avoided.
Like adults, children should train all of their major muscle groups. Fortunately, this can be accomplished with about seven basic exercises. If appropriate weight stack machines are available, consider the following sequence of youth strength training exercises: (1) leg press for the front thigh, rear thigh and hip muscles; (2) chest press for the chest and rear arm muscles; (3) seated row for the upper back and front arm muscles; (4) shoulder press for the shoulder and rear arm muscles; (5) pull down for the mid back and front arm muscles; (6) trunk flexion for the midsection muscles; and (7) trunk extension for the lower back muscles. If dumbbells are used, the following exercise sequence is recommended: (1) dumbbell squat for the front thigh, rear thigh and hip muscles; (2) dumbbell bench press for the chest and rear arm muscles; (3) dumbbell row for the upper back and front arm muscles; (4) dumbbell press for the shoulder and rear arm muscles; (5) dumbbell curl for the front arm muscles; (6) bodyweight trunk curls for the midsection muscles; and (7) bodyweight trunk extensions for the lower back muscles.
Although one strength training session per week is sufficient, our research shows better results with two non-consecutive strength workouts on a weekly basis. Overweight boys and girls who do strength exercise in this manner average 2.5 pounds more lean (muscle) tissue and 3.0 pounds less fat every eight weeks of training.
Finally, most youth (overweight or otherwise) like strength training. However, they seem to like it even better when it is part of an overall physical activity program that includes lots of large muscle exercise such as low-organized games, relays, ball-handling skills, dynamic stretching and equipment utilization (hoops, medicine balls, wands, ropes, beanbags, etc.). One well-researched approach is to sandwich 20 minutes of sensible strength training between 15 minutes of game-like warmup activities and 15 minutes of similar but less vigorous cooldown activities. This provides a well-rounded program of muscular and cardiovascular exercise that is physiologically beneficial and psychologically interesting.
For further information or article reprints on youth strength training call Wayne Westcott at (617) 479-8500 ext. 140.