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At what age should children start exercising?

It is crucial for children to be active in order to grow up to be healthy adults. Here's what parents should watch out for

Let children pick their own sport.
Let children pick their own sport. (Istockphoto)

The pandemic did not just alter our office schedules. It also made us stuck-at-home individuals. And while most of us struggled with reduced socialisation, maybe a little boredom, a section of the society had more to lose—children. They have been cooped up in their homes through the whole of last year. With drastically reduced physical activity, children will stand to lose in the health game at an early age. Unless we act soon. According to the latest National Family Health Survey, there is an increase in obesity among children in 20 of the 22 states surveyed. Though the survey was conducted before the pandemic, the situation would have only been worsened by the pandemic.

When it comes to tackling obesity, the formula remains the same for adults and kids—calories in should be less than calories out. One way to control it is to limit junk food. “As Indians, we have a habit of making children eat till their tummies are full. That is not required. Their nutrition should be full, their stomach does not have to be. Because a lot of time, if something is tasty, children may eat even after they are full,” says Aditya Kedia, founder and head coach at XFitKids.

Being physically active at a young age not just makes a child more fit but also helps them reduce chances of developing cardiovascular diseases later on in life. Physical activity helps build more of the kind of lean muscle mass that supports joints and improves kids’ metabolism. This puts them at lower risk for diabetes. Since childhood is a crucial time for bone development, exercises that involve jumping or running can help make children's bones dense and strong. This is especially important for young girls, who at a later stage in life, tend to lose more bone mass than their male peers. Activity also boosts their immunity, and helps children improve their posture and balance. The latter is very useful in that it helps reduce falls and thus injuries.

Physical activity cuts down the risk of long-term cardiovascular diseases and improves kids' metabolism.
Physical activity cuts down the risk of long-term cardiovascular diseases and improves kids' metabolism. (Istockphoto)

But while more activity is a good thing, should children be working out? Especially with weights? “Children under the age of six have a slightly different body structure. For example, their bones have not become strong yet etc. So if you give them weights to lift, there is a risk of the loose bones to crack. Their core is also much weaker and it is therefore difficult for them to do much with good form,” says Piyush Pandey, founder and head coach at Delhi’s CrossFit Himalaya.

After six or seven years of age, they start to build strength. But it has to be progressively built. A structured program is helpful, but that depends on the goal of the parent and child.

“Do we use the same program for a child and an adult? Well, the basic movements are the same, though the intensity will obviously be very different. For example, most exercises will have a variation of a select few movements only—push, pull, throw, catch, sit, stand and picking up. These are the same ones adults use in a gym or CrossFit class and the same thing that children need for their daily life,” explains Kedia.

Should children specialise in one sport at a very early age? Pandey believes that the sport should be left to children to choose, preferably when they are a little older. But the foundation for an active and fit lifestyle should be built at a young age. “This helps them to pick up and excel at whichever sport they want to pursue later on, or even without sport, just lead a healthier life,” Pandey says. However, he is quick to remind that unless you are qualified to train children, you should not attempt to do so. “Take the help of a coach or do a training program yourself. Children can be easily influenced and they learn by watching and imitating. If you teach something wrong they will pick it up. But if you are a good coach, they will pick it up and excel at it,” he says.

Kedia shares his experience of training three children from Bengaluru, all of whom were swimmers. However he realized that while they excelled at their sport, their cores remained weak. He prepared a plan for them to build core strength and this improved their performance in the pool as well. “There is always more to training than just the sport. It can be to build endurance, to build a stronger core, maybe remain flexible etc. For children especially, general fitness is not optional. It is essential,” he says.

One thing to remember is that positive reinforcements go a long way with children. They might not be able to follow instructions at first. Especially, in the first couple of weeks. So instead of scolding or even ignoring them, try to encourage them to keep trying and appreciate their efforts.

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