Meet the Experts: Youth Fitness

Children's fitness is no longer just about organized sports. Here, experts share tips for helping to make fitness fun for youth.

In the past, physical education classes meant a few kids playing sports while the rest lingered in the outfield, avoiding the embarrassment brought on by lack of skills. Today it's a whole new "ballgame," with kids actually wanting to play and sweat. The difference is the focus on movement and not a particular skill set. As adults, we are finally getting it: Kids want to have fun and move, and not necessarily be a part of a formal program. Here, experts share their best practices on moving kids through the continuum of wellness.

Meet the experts

Teale Dotson, R.N., Oakton, Va.

Michael Jordan, owner and director of training and youth fitness, Personal Training Professionals, New Caanan, Conn.

Gwen Massey, interim principal, Pendleton Elementary School, Pendleton, S.C.

Melinda Young, health fitness instructor, Williamsburg, Va.

Make fitness fun

Fitness is not a punishment, it is a healthy foundation. "For the kids who might need a trainer the most, fitness has been used as punishment," says Dotson. "For example, when they get in trouble or finish last at something in P.E., they are told to run laps, do push ups, etc. Fitness ends up having a negative connotation. Those kids will need to be given fitness tasks they can accomplish without it seeming like punishment."

Help parents to be role models. "The first and most important step begins in the home," says Jordan. "It would be a futile effort to expect a child to change his or her habits in just a few hours of training per week. It is our responsibility to provide parents with the proper knowledge and tools required to transform their households into a more health-conscious environment. This includes an evaluation of food selections, hours spent watching television or playing video games, outdoor family activities, etc. These habits are not developed by accident, but by systematic exposure to new situations. If the exposure is positive and occurs in an atmosphere of love and care, then the child will want to repeat these experiences, which will form new healthy habits."

Improve diet

Healthy eating. How do kids get it into their heads that eating fruits and vegetables is a bad thing? It's not easy to change this mindset, sometimes even for adults! "The food guide pyramid does a good job of quantifying how many servings of each type of food [children] should eat. And, allowing older children to help with their own meal planning allows them to take ownership in their nutrition," says Dotson.

"In the schools, we are seeing a changing trend toward better eating. Many of our younger kids are making healthier choices than our fifth-graders," says Massey. "All of our children, regardless of age, are allowed to make decisions on what to eat for lunch, and many choose a salad. It will be interesting to review the data as these kids get older."

It's good to know that younger children are making the shift in the right direction, but how do you get the most stubborn child to eat healthy foods?

Trick: Puree healthy food into sauces. Says Jordan, "I have seen repeated success with this trick, both personally and professionally. Fruits and vegetables can easily be pureed into healthy sauces for all sorts of meals. Kids receive the necessary nutrients without having to think about eating raw broccoli, carrots, etc."

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Encourage healthy thinking

Improve social interaction. "We live in an age of instant messaging, text messaging and email," says Jordan. "I actually had one of my youth clients show up to a session with a portable DVD player and a cell phone. In spite of the many benefits technology provides, it also contributes to the decline of real social interaction and [to shorter] attention spans."

Make things interesting. Jordan says that group classes can provide an excellent opportunity to build social skills, as well as fundamental fitness skills. "Trainers can set up a three-station circuit that includes strength, speed and agility, and balance and coordination." That's what Massey did in conjunction with the help of a product manufacturer. Together they developed a circuit protocol with fifth-graders that built upper-body strength and flexibility. It went so well that the school added the class for third-, fourth- and sixth-grades. "The station concept is a great idea for kids," says Massey. "The kids loved it because it allows for variety."

Young says that creating easy moves for children to just move and/or dance is fun for them. She especially likes using obstacle courses. "When they can climb over things, run, crawl under things and complete tasks, it's instant gratification for them," she says. "It becomes more about that than about the exercise. Set up things that they can move to and then knock down, etc." To engage children in fitness, play Simon Says, or try something completely different for them, like kickboxing.

Be subtle

Not small adults. Children are not merely small adults. Jordan says, "We must be sure not to treat young clients like miniature adults. The most important reason for this is the many physiological differences between children and adults, which directly affect exercise assessment and program design. The second reason is the difference in attention span and the need to keep things fun and interesting."

Make fitness a game. "Try setting up 'fitness gauntlets' that improve many of the gross motor skills, as well as fundamental functional fitness skills," suggests Jordan. "These courses may include cone drills, jump rope, assisted-push ups, medicine ball tosses, agility ladder drills and more." Fitness gauntlets can also be in the form of technologically enhanced equipment that allows kids to jump, balance, stretch and move their game piece with their own body. Kids are seeing big results with these "exer-games," in part because they like something new and different, but also because they truly are a lot of fun and kids will stay on them longer. The games allow kids to play against each other, which helps with social skills, and allows children to use their own body strength and endurance to improve their fitness levels.

However you design your training programs for children, remember not to treat young clients like miniature adults. Young suggests watching kids play to figure out what entertains them. Young children would never run for 30 minutes like adults do. They run as hard as they can to the slide, then they run to the next thing.

You want kids to have fun, because the more fun they have, the more fitness they'll participate in. The more fitness they participate in, the healthier they will become. "Find something positive in each kid's abilities," says Young, whether it's running, dancing or weight lifting. Each child needs encouragement to try new things and to figure out his or her strengths. If you can help children hone in on what they are good at and what they enjoy, while continuing to challenge them in the things that are more difficult to master, you can start them on a lifelong journey of fitness.

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