The title got your attention, right? This article is really about how to help kids achieve the optimal body composition so they can live the best life.
We want our kids to have the knowledge, habits, and skills to be healthy, strong, enjoy movement, and feel good about what they look like. If they want to be athletes, we need to help them build strength, speed, and mental toughness to reach their sporting potential. They need to know what to eat and when to eat it for optimal performance. Or if they want to be scientists, teachers, writers, business leaders, or whatever makes them feel alive, they must have the physical and dietary tools for optimal brain function and self-confidence.
Of course, if you make one wrong move when talking to your child about body composition, you face any number of unforeseen repercussions. Research shows that when fathers’ make comments about a daughter’s weight, the risk of her developing an eating disorder increases significantly. And children whose parents put them on a diet are more likely to remain overweight than parents who don’t. Where to start and what to do?
A look at the literature suggests the following suggestions for helping kids to achieve optimal body composition:
1) Weight Training is Essential for Kids
A 2010 review published in Pediatrics found that weight training is extremely beneficial for kids. Contrary to one of the most pervasive myths about resistance training, as long as proper training technique and appropriate progressions are used, weight lifting is safe and effective for kids as young as age 7.
The review found that almost without exception, kids benefited from weight training and gained strength. Strength development tends to follow a linear path as children get older, assuming consistent training.
For example, a well-designed 2-year study of youth soccer players ranging in age from 11 to 19 demonstrates the type of gains you can expect to see in youth from proper training. The players were divided into two-year age groups (11 to 13, 14 to 15, 16 to 17, and 18 to 19) and they followed a typical periodized training program that included multi-joint free weight exercises for the whole body. The youngest group did strictly technique-oriented training with more moderate loads than the other groups.
Results found that all groups showed dramatic gains in lower body strength compared to a control group of soccer players. Maximal strength values for the back squat relative to body weight were 0.9 for the youngest group, 1.4 for the 14- to 15-year olds, 1.6 for 16- to 17-year olds, and 1.7 for 18- to 19-year olds.
The study authors point to consistency and proper training technique as the key to their success. Likewise, in the Pediatrics review, the most reliable factor for predicting strength gains in kids was whether they participated in a continual, consistent training program at least twice a week.
Strength gains in kids are predominantly neurological and they experience very little muscle development, which is a primary difference between youth and adults who weight train. Even though they don’t experience significant muscle development, it’s reasonable to assume that training will support body composition through increased energy expenditure, but more so by giving kids a tool with which to be able to shape their bodies as they grow older. In addition, there is evidence that training improves kids self concept and it will certainly allow their nervous systems and muscles to start interacting more efficiently.
Training programs that used higher intensities showed that children can also increase motor-unit activation within their muscle after weight training. This is a critical point because it highlights that all kids should train because doing so will allow their muscles to contract more efficiently, improving coordination of movement.
Not only will they be able to move better, but in the increasingly sedentary modern world, very few children get sufficient physical activity to fully strengthen muscles, tendons, and other tissues. There’s no way that a kid who sits in a classroom and then in front of a screen all day will be able to run, throw, kick, lift or jump safely in field or court sports.
2) Replace TV & Screen Time With Training & Other Modes of Physical Activity
Replacing TV and limiting screen time is an essential component of helping kids develop their physical skills and promoting optimal body composition. Screen time really is that bad for kids (it’s bad for you too!): A recent Canadian study found that children who spent more time watching television prior to age 5 had much larger waist circumference and significantly lower muscular power than those who watched the least. The average amount of time spent by the children watching TV at 29 months was 8.8 hours a week, whereas at 53 months it was 14.85 hours a week. Talk about time wasted!
Don’t set kids up to fail. Early childhood is a critical period for the development of behaviors that will affect kids throughout their lives. The activities and messages kids are exposed to from birth to age 5 will “program” their psychological preferences, and may have some influence on metabolic programming, or risk of getting fat, although the cause and effect relationship there is less clear.
Any TV is too much. For every ONE hour of TV per week that kids watched at 29 months, they experienced poorer performance in the long jump test and a measurable increase in waist size. Researchers concluded that “for some children, excessive television exposure was associated with the experience of a substantial level of impairment.”
3) Lead By Example To Help Kids Achieve Optimal Body Composition
Research suggests that to some degree kids will follow their parents’ example. In addition, there’s evidence that simply being more available to your kids and spending more time with them is associated with a better body composition.
For example, one study showed that the more time mom’s spent interacting with their kids, the better their children’s body composition. A component of this study was that mom’s who had heavier workloads in their jobs (they spent more time out of the home, and may have been distracted when at home) had kids with a greater chance of being overweight.
Obviously, this is not an easy issue to address and is out of the scope of this article. However, three suggestions for a place to start include the following:
• Train with your kids. Research shows that parents spend about an hour-and-a-half a day being sedentary with their kids. A solution is to replace just 45 minutes of that time with vigorous physical activity.
• Get rid of your TV and set limits on leisure screen time.
• Clean up the family diet and your environment. Get rid of any processed or packaged foods, and anything with chemicals or added sugar. Likewise, get rid of personal care, cleaning, and any other products that contain toxins, including BPA, parabens, and phthalates. These toxins can mimic estrogen if ingested and are particularly dangerous for small, growing bodies because they can disrupt basic hormone balance.
4) Teach Your Kids How & What To Eat
You have complete freedom and responsibility to teach your kids how and what to eat. You don’t have to listen to government recommendations that don’t make sense. Karen Le Billon writes in the New York Times parenting blog that compared to how Americans are taught to feed their kids (processed cereal!), the first foods the French are told to feed their kids are leek soup, endive, spinach, and beets.
The French teach their children that “good for you foods” taste good, whereas Americans often do the opposite, setting kids up to hate the foods that need to make up the staple of their diets.
Le Billon, who has lived in France, eloquently notes that “French parents teach their children to eat like we teach our kids to read: with love, patience, and firm persistence they expose their children tot a wide variety of tastes, flavors and textures.” And guess what? American kids are three times as likely as French kids to be overweight.
Know that you CAN teach kids to prefer vegetables, fruits, and protein over processed junk. Though not a randomized control trial, this article
gives tips on how to do so based on real-life experience.