There’s one thing that many parents aren’t really sure of but have strong views on: when should their children start exercising? Everyone allows their kids to run about, play sports and jump around at a very young age; however anecdotal evidence shows that the majority don’t let their young kids go to a gym and do strength and conditioning exercises.
While the concern about injuries is valid, their biggest worry, often without any evidence or scientific basis, is that using weights at a young age would stunt or inhibit their growth, especially their height. In fact, getting children to start strength and conditioning between 12 and 14 years of age, when bone mineral content deposition reaches a maximal point among humans, is immensely helpful for strengthening their bones, says Rajesh Parameswaran, coach and founder of The Den Strength and Conditioning in Bengaluru.
A graded approach
“While programming a fitness routine for children, it is suggested to follow a hierarchical model which begins by providing a foundation of cardio-respiratory fitness through relative and age appropriate intensity. The goal is to build a base of stamina and endurance,” adds Parameswaran, who has studied exercise science and has also completed the Opex kids’ fitness course.
Children can start with running when they start school, at around six years of age, says Dr Krishan Chugh, director and head of department of paediatrics at Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram. “They can start workouts after attaining a proper sense of position (proprioception) and balance, which happens generally at the age of eight. Strengthening exercises can be started in a graded manner. Lifting weights, generally speaking, should be done after 10 years of age,” advises Chugh. However, rather than relying solely on age, Parameswaran encourages letting the child’s mental, emotional and physical maturity dictate the appropriate workout intensity.
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Yuvraj Mazumder, 19, a student in Kolkata, started working out at the age of 10, when he was taken to the gym by his father. For the first two years he just stuck to running and freehand exercises. At the age of 12 he started doing deadlifts and squats with a barbell after his father consulted the coach and figured that he was ready. “I was a strong kid and by the age of 14 I was already doing deadlift with 90 kg loads,” Mazumder recalls.
Children should perform complex Olympic lifting movements such as snatch, cleans and jerks only around 16 years of age, advises Chugh. He adds that these exercises could be dangerous without proper training and should be done only under the supervision of a qualified coach. Mazumder was performing these by the age of 15 under supervision because he had his basics in place and the coach felt he was ready for complex exercises.
What are the benefits?
Exercise and lifting weights not only improve strength and stamina of children but also improves their bone density, says Parameswaran. “It directly improves their health and athletic conditioning. Also, since research and data suggest that focusing on a single sport can lead to overuse injuries, working out adds diversity, which, based on scientific evidence, may be beneficial for children’s strength and motor coordination.”
The benefits of a safe training program on children and adolescents include a number of things, including muscular strength, power and endurance, bone strength, agility and cardiovascular health. These factors could add to the child’s injury resistance, psychological wellbeing and promote positive exercise habits.
Working out, just like with adults, also holds more than just physical benefits for children. “I was overweight and starting exercise early not only helped me check my weight, it actually made me stronger and fitter. More than that it also developed my self-confidence and removed several mental blocks that I had about life in general and myself in particular,” says Mazumder. He says he looks forward to his daily gym time; it makes him happy and provides a break from the pressures at school and parental expectations.
“One of the most remarkable post-exercise effects of resistance training on the brain is the increased growth of new neurons (neurogenesis) in the dentate gyrus, a sub-region of the hippocampus involved in memory and learning,” says Parameswaran.
Will lifting weights stunt the kids?
There are plenty of myths surrounding children and exercise and weights. The most common one is that a child’s height and growth would be negatively impacted if they start lifting weight at a young age. Both Chugh and Parameswaran dismiss this as so much hot air without any scientific evidence. “Age appropriate weightlifting as a strengthening exercise under expert supervision does not result in stunting,” says Chugh. No studies have ever shown that lifting weights stunts or inhibits growth, points out Parameswaran. “But, as with any exercise programme, if you do too much too soon, physical problems can occur no matter how old the person is,” he says.
The other misplaced idea is that hanging from bars and doing pull-ups would lead to an increase in height. Pull-ups activate your upper body muscles such as back, arms, chest, and abs. “Hanging from bars and doing pull-ups doesn’t help in height gain at all. Hanging by the arms if done under supervision can result in strengthening of muscles of the arm and the shoulders to some extent although better exercise schedules are available for achieving that,” advises Chugh.
Some precautions you should take
Make sure you follow these steps before making any decisions:
-A complete physical examination from a qualified medical professional.
-Take specific precautions based on your child’s medical needs.
-Research the proper age for any exercise/workout.
-Start your child under the supervision of a trained and qualified coach.
-Have certain aims and goals set out at the beginning of the process.
-Don’t even think of opting for protein supplements or any other performance enhancer.
-Remember that pre-workout warm up and post-workout cool down is a must.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.