Exercise for Kids: What’s Safe, What’s Not

As obesity impacts the health and wellness of children and teens, regular exercise becomes more important than ever. Exercise helps get kids in shape and keeps them strong, and organized sports for young kids can be great tools for teaching discipline, hard work and fitness. But throughout adolesence, the human body remains vulnerable to breaks, tears and injuries to growth plates. That’s why parents should set limits when helping their kids exercise.

Posted on | Michael Neely, DO | Comments ()

As obesity impacts the health and wellness of children and teens, regular exercise becomes more important than ever. Exercise helps get kids in shape and keeps them strong, and organized sports for young kids can be great tools for teaching discipline, hard work and fitness. But throughout adolesence, the human body remains vulnerable to breaks, tears and injuries to growth plates. That’s why parents should set limits when helping their kids exercise.

First, know the difference between strength training and weightlifting. Weightlifting and bodybuilding both concentrate on gaining muscle mass and progressively increasing the amount of weight being lifted. This is harmful for kids and preteens. Because children’s skeletons are still developing, they cannot handle the stress of lifting heavy weights, and may be easily injured.

Instead, focus on involving your child in strength-training exercises that utilize resistance and your child’s own body weight. Routines including push-ups, sit-ups and light calisthenics are completely safe for children not yet of middle school age. Consider adding in a 10-15 minute warm-up period with low-intensity aerobic exercises and stretching. Resistance bands offer an easy and convenient way for children to exercise without stressing their growing bodies. The resistance takes very little time to adjust and can be practiced anywhere.

By utilizing light resistance with bands and bodyweight exercises, children will be able to increase strength without the dangers of pumping iron. For strength training to be both effective and safe, it should be practiced no more than three times a week. Furthermore, all major muscle groups should receive at least 48 hours of rest between workouts.

Young children can also run for short stretches, but parents should exercise discretion at just how much they allow them to run. Children’s joints are particularly sensitive to repetitive stress, and too much running can easily cause injury and inhibit proper growth. Your child may want to participate in more formal running exercises, either out of curiosity or to join you in your workout. This is okay as long as you limit the total number of miles they run. A good indication is when the children reach their voluntary exhaustion. Always make sure they are drinking plenty of fluids and stop them from running if they complain of pain, dizziness or fatigue -- or if you suspect they are dehydrated.

Children of middle school age can safely run anywhere from 6-10 miles, especially for team sports such as track or cross country. Kids interested in running a marathon should be dissuaded from doing so until they are older. Until kids reach 18, they remain at risk for cartilage, tendon and bone platelet damage. Encourage kids to wait a little longer, until age 21, to take on a marathon. By then, the body has finished with the most critical phases of development and can properly sustain the stress of long-distance running.

Likewise, weight lifting is okay once your children reach high school. Even then, however, guidelines should be in place to avoid injury. Lower weights at higher repetitions are safest -- normally around 10 to 15 reps per set. Always ensure your child is using proper form and that he can reach the last repetition easily. Even when your child is older, he or she should exercise each muscle group only once per week with a minimum of 48 hours of rest in between individual workouts.

Teaching your children the value of physical fitness now will pay off in an abundance of health, stamina, mental development and psychological well-being later on. But too much too soon will set children back instead of forward. Follow the above steps to put your child on the path to safety and an active lifestyle with a limited injuries.

Blog written by Michael Neely, DO
Michael Neely, DO, is the Medical Director at NY Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy. He has dedicated his practice to the...