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Isaac Ruben has been working out with a personal trainer since he was 10 years old. He lifts weights, jogs on a treadmill, does lunges, and even plays sports with his trainer, Heath Woodward.
"I know it's going to be a hard day when [Heath] says 'We're going to have fun,' " says Isaac, a 15-year-old who is home schooled.
"Yeah, he knows it's going to be a tough workout when I say 'I've got something fun for you today,' " Mr. Woodward says, laughing.
Some "fun" exercises include intense cardio or "dueling ropes," where Isaac will hold a long rope in his hands and thrust it up and down to make waves for an extended period of time.
"With dueling ropes, you usually have two ropes, one in each hand," Woodward says. "I only make Isaac use one, though."
Isaac, like many children, has been exposed to structured exercise and sports from a young age. Most organized sports start recruiting youths at age 5, and in some places, such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California, a growing trend offers athletic programs to toddlers as young as 2.
Americans are competitive. A growing percentage also are obese. Parents can agree establishing healthy habits in their children is important, but with bones, muscles, and tendons still growing, how young is too young to get kids involved in exercise?
Books such as Body for Life by Bill Phillips preach that kids should not start intense weight lifting until they have completely finished puberty -- around age 18. Dr. Carl Samuel, a rehab exercise specialist at Mercy St. Charles Hospital, disagrees.
"There really is no danger," Dr. Samuel says. "It's funny, the guidelines used to be there were dangers of injuring the growth plates or bone development of children, but new research has really shown that's not the case."
Child involvement in strength training and sports, Dr. Samuel says, provides benefits such as increased strength, lowered fat, and boosted confidence. Children already are flexible, much more so than adults, he says, which actually makes it less likely that children will be injured during physical activity than a grown-up.
Dr. Carl Samuel's guide to healthy exercise for children:
Equipment: There's no need for special shoes or workout gear with crazy labels and crazier price tags. Shoes that provide a solid base and are comfortable are enough.
Nutrition: Forget the protein shakes and vitamin pills. The protein and vitamins they get from eating healthy meals is all the nutrition children need.
Technique: Children need to be able to follow direction and use proper technique to avoid injury. If they can't follow directions, they shouldn't be doing intense exercise.
Warm up: Get the heart rate at more than 100 beats per minute to get blood flowing. Depending on the exercise, stretch all the major muscle groups the child will be working. If running, for example, stretch the hamstrings, quads, and hip flexors. Do all stretches for 45 seconds each.
Workout: Use proper supervision to make sure kids are following proper techniques to avoid injury.
Cool down: Ease down the heart rate. Don't go from intense exercise to a complete stop. Stretch muscles again for 45 seconds each.
Recover: Kids should drink water and eat a healthy meal to give the body the vitamins and protein it needs.
Rest: Give the child a day of rest after a day of intense exercise so muscles can recover.
"Kids start exercising as soon as they're born," Mr. Woodward says. "Even crawling is exercise for a baby."
Mr. Woodward instructs a youth fitness program and works as a personal trainer at Wildwood Athletic Club. He says what defines the age when a child can begin intense exercise and weight lifting in earnest is the ability to take direction.
"I've noticed, in my experience, that right around 9 or 10 is the breaking point," he says. "We've had a lot of 9-year-olds that just couldn't understand the mental aspect as much as the physical one, whereas a 10-year-old seems to be able to comprehend the educational part."
Dr. Samuel agrees that the ability to take direction and follow proper technique is what determines a child's capability to seriously work out.
"It's more of their maturity level than age," he says. "The biggest risk with children and weight lifting is poor technique. If they're able to follow directions, it should be fine. Personally, I know trainers with clients under the age of 10. And they're not doing too much heavy lifting, but more working on coordination and skills for their sport."
It's also about proportion. Dr. Samuel says the amount and intensity of exercise and how much weight is lifted should be proportional to the child.
"It's similar to adults -- you wouldn't want to do it every day. There should be a day of rest to keep from overloading the muscles," he says.
While Dr. Samuel doesn't believe in a set age for children to begin an exercise regimen, Mr. Woodward warns against too much repetitive motion and varsity sport-level activity/devotion before age 15.
"The child's growth plates are still growing," Mr. Woodward says. "If you're constantly doing a repetitive motion on that same joint, that same muscle, that same bone, there's a good chance you could get a fracture or get injured."
The good news? Dr. Samuel says childhood injuries rarely affect people in their adult lives.
"Unless it's a devastating injury, the types of injuries [kids] would be sustaining, like a muscle strain, you can recover from those," he says.
And muscle strains and fractures or repetitive motion from sports such as cross-country running can be avoided with good technique, Dr. Samuel says.
For Mr. Woodward and Dr. Samuel, child enjoyment is the key to every work out or sport.
"In today's society it's all about winning," Mr. Woodward says. "If the kid is so driven to win and not enjoying the activity, that could affect them for the rest of their life. They might get injured or say 'I'm tired of this, I'm not going to be active at all,' and just quit."
"You should let your kid be a kid," Dr. Samuel says. "But I definitely encourage parents to get their children involved in activities or sports because it will help them with their social life … but as far as putting pressure on them to be the best, I don't think that's necessary."
Contact Ashley Sepanski at email@example.com or 419-724-6082.