Regular exercise is great for kids of all ages, but the most important thing is to keep the experience full of joy.
Kyle Pontiff, MD, sports medicine physician with Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health, explains why and shares his advice for all parents, whether their children are serious athletes or are just getting started in regular physical activity.
When deciding whether to get more competitive with a sport or train for a specific distance race, such as the one-mile family fun run that’s part of our upcoming Amazing Half Marathon, focus on your child’s maturity level. It’s not just about how responsible they are or how they would respond to coaching, but their physical maturity. Keep things developmentally appropriate. For example, toddlers shouldn’t train for a race other than serving as a training buddy for mom or dad while riding in a stroller.
Balance to Avoid Injury and Burnout
Parents and coaches play a huge role in keeping athletic activities fun while helping children train their bodies and find success in their sport. When the athletic environment is not enjoyable, kids are more likely to quit. Overpacking a schedule with sports can certainly lead to less enjoyment.
In addition to reducing the risk of injury, a good rule of thumb for balance is to limit hours of training per week to the number of their age in years. For example, a 9-year-old shouldn’t be training more than nine hours per week.
Free Play as Fun
When the amount of time per week dedicated to training goes up, the amount of time left for free play and other activities with friends and family goes down. That increases the chances of burnout, dropping out of the sport, and the risk of overuse injuries. Children of all ages need time for free play and moving their bodies in ways that feel right to them.
Younger kids especially should stick to mostly free play. They need plenty of time to play and move around. Most kids are developmentally ready for organized activities and sports around age 6.
Mixing in additional movement or cross training can help keep physical activity interesting while providing athletic improvement. When considering cross training for children, it’s important to understand the goal. It might be for injury recovery or trying to improve a specific weakness in a sport.
For example, dance is primarily focused on the lower body, so adding in moves or training to strengthen the upper body, core and hips can help bring balance. This kind of additional body work can lead to improvements within the main sport, giving more body control.
A baseball player who also plays basketball during the off-season can strengthen different parts of their body, since basketball uses similar motions but adds in cutting, pivoting, jumping and landing movements that are less prominent in baseball.
Swimming is a full-body, low-impact sport that can also be great fun. Yoga and Pilates are great ways to strengthen and lengthen, stretching out the body with just body weight. Rowing and boxing provide different moves that are low impact and don’t stress joints. And don’t forget a family bike ride–getting outside together while being active is always a great idea.
If your little one is more into video games than baseball games or if you’ve been away from in-person indoor activities during the pandemic, getting started can feel daunting. It’s worth it, and your little one will reap the benefits of starting regular physical activity.
Begin slowly, making exercise a sustainable routine without pushing too hard or burning out. To train for a race, set reasonable goals for each day. There are many apps available, such as Couch-to-5K, that can help you set training goals.
Moving our bodies–for fun, for competition, for any reason at all–is good for our health at any age. Keep it simple and keep it fun, although our exceptional providers are here for you if injuries do happen.