When I think of fit kids and youth sports, I think of games like tag or sports like soccer. I think organized teams or free play at recess. What I don’t think of is gyms, barbells and resistance training. I don’t think of kids lifting weights.
Most people don’t, it turns out. And there’s been a long-standing reluctance to allow kids to lift weights, the received wisdom being that it would cause injuries at best and stunt their growth at worst. The former is a reasonable risk but the latter? A new study says it’s totally unfounded.
In fact, the latest issue of the journal of Pediatrics, researchers have found weight-training to be beneficial, even for kids as young as 6. (Six!)
Gretchen Reynolds writes about the findings over at the Well blog on The New York Times. In addition to finding zero evidence of stunted growth, some of the other assumed drawbacks of weight training weren’t found. Kids through their teens rarely “bulk up” when in a weight training program. But, indeed, those in the study increased their strength. Also, girls increased their strength just as much as boys, even during the super testosterone-charged adolescent years. Even Kindergarteners, who lifted dowel rods with balloons (balloons, for goodness sake!) increased their muscle strength.
But here’s the most interesting part. If kids start a kind of program between the age of 7 and 12, the most pronounced benefits are “neurological.” Reynolds explains:
Their nervous systems and muscles start interacting more efficiently. A few small studies have shown that children develop a significant increase in motor-unit activation within their muscles after weight training. A motor unit consists of a single neuron and all of the muscle cells that it controls. When more motor units fire, a muscle contracts more efficiently. So, in essence, strength training in children seems to liberate the innate strength of the muscle, to activate the power that has been in abeyance, unused.
Of course, it would be unsafe for other reasons to turn kids loose in the weight room of a gym. In fact, the study’s author concludes, kids don’t actually need barbells to do this kind of training. A medicine ball, resistance bands (in your unused Pilates kit) and one’s own body weight are all the tools you need.
Which is also good news for elementary schools with no P.E. budget or room for a soccer field.
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