Never too late–or too early

The other day I got to thinking (again) about the importance of setting good examples for kids. And how essential it is to set their health on the right track now. So that they don’t face the same dire, disease-ridden circumstances staring so many Americans in the face these days.

But it’s not just about what they eat. Physical activity is essential, too.

I have wonderful memories of playing tennis with my mom when I was a child. I only wish that my parents had insisted upon more of that sort of thing. Unfortunately, they didn’t know any better. In fact, back then, it was a common assumption that children shouldn’t exercise too much because it would stunt their growth. That was particularly true for any sort of weight lifting. And, for the most part, that idea about kids and weights hasn’t changed in the past 30+ years.

But I’m happy to report that a major new review just published in Pediatrics suggests that weight training isn’t only safe for young people, it can also be beneficial. Even essential.

The researchers analyzed over 60 years’ worth of data. And found that, almost without exception, children and adolescents benefited from weight training. They grew stronger. Older children, particularly teenagers, tended to add more strength than younger ones. But the difference was not enormous.

Overall, strength gains were “linear,” the researchers found. They didn’t spike wildly after puberty for boys or girls. (Even though boys at that age are awash in testosterone, and men my age beat down the doors of my office to get some.)

What was important was consistency. Which is something I have been writing to you about–and discussing with my patients–quite a bit lately. And it’s just as important for kids.

Young people who participated in resistance training at least twice a week for a month or more showed greater strength gains than those who worked out only once a week or for shorter periods.

Overall, the researchers concluded, “regardless of age, children generally seem to be capable of increasing muscular strength.”

But interestingly, young people don’t generally add muscular power in quite the same way as adults. Adults, particularly men but also women, typically add muscle mass when they start weight training, a process known as muscular hypertrophy (or, less technically, “getting buff”).

Kids, on the other hand, rarely pack on bulk. Their strength gains seem generally to involve “neurological” changes. In other words, their nervous systems and muscles start interacting more efficiently. So strength training in children seems to liberate the innate strength of the muscle. And activate the existing power that has been unused.

And that fact, from both a physiological and philosophical standpoint, is perhaps why strength training for children is so important.

I always tell you that it’s never too late. And now we know it’s never too early to start weight training. If you get the whole family involved, it can be so much fun that it never occurs to kids that they’re “strength training” at all. Be consistent, and it will simply become part of your family routine. Which will set up healthy habits that your kids will maintain for the rest of their lives.