Even if they are slim, many kids are unfit, according to research. Trainer Matt Roberts shows how to get them in shape
With the World Cup, Wimbledon and the Commonwealth Games, we have been exposed to an endless and inspiring summer of sport. But ask yourself honestly, how active have your children been? Dwindling levels of childhood activity are not a new issue, yet what has struck me, from research I’ve done with primary school children, is quite how bad things have become. Thirty years ago it was not unusual for children to run or walk a mile or more every day. Today I’ve seen ten-year-olds who struggle to walk half that distance without puffing and blowing through lack of fitness. Some children manage only ten minutes a day of any sort of physical activity. It’s a huge problem and a global one. The World Health Organisation estimates that up to 80 per cent of young people globally may not be getting enough exercise.
Everyone asks how we have reached this low point. The popular view is that schools aren’t providing enough physical activity as part of the curriculum, that facilities are lacking for children and that playing fields are being sold off, leaving them with few places to run around. In reality, the problem is more complex than that. Parents (and I know because I’m one myself) are under financial pressure to work longer and harder, leaving less time to encourage activity or walk with children to school. Our lifestyles, eating habits and the way we socialise have changed beyond measure and the current generation of children spend more time on their backsides than any other before them.
With so many mixed messages it’s also easy for parents to lose perspective about their own children. Most people are all too aware that childhood obesity is a problem, but many don’t realise (or perhaps are in denial) when their own child’s weight gain and lack of fitness is slipping into dangerous territory. A new study in theJournal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics shows that about one third of parents with obese children often fail to see their children’s weight as unhealthy, even after a doctor’s diagnosis. The same study also asked the parents, who filled in a survey while visiting an obesity clinic, if they had any plans to do anything to improve their child’s problem. A shocking 60 per cent said they had not yet found the time to encourage their children to do more physical activity.
This kind of ambivalence towards activity is concerning. In many ways, a lack of fitness in a child is more worrying than being overweight. Even if children don’t visibly gain weight in the short term (and the likelihood is that they will if their sedentary lifestyles continue), the outlook for those who are inactive isn’t good. Last week, Professor David McCarthy, of London Metropolitan University , published research that showed many normal-weight children have far too much fat and not enough muscle as a result of their inactivity levels, putting them at risk of heart disease and diabetes.
So what’s the solution? Of course, we need to encourage children to move more than they do. Guidelines suggest that all 5 to 18-year-olds should do at least an hour of physical activity a day, some of which should leave them breathless and sweaty, and on three days a week that should include muscle-strengthening moves that will help them to gain the strength and physical conditioning they need to progress through their teens and become healthy adults. What this doesn’t mean is that they need to join a gym or get a personal trainer. I’ve developed a simple, 20-minute programme for primary school children that I’ve called “Fitness For Life” and am rolling it out nationwide this year. It consists of simple exercises that require no special equipment, like the ones we’ve included here, carried out five days a week. This kind of approach can have a dramatic effect within a few weeks.
Exercise for children, especially those under 12, should be enjoyable and any activity that is added to their daily routine should be based predominantly on lots of game-play. It helps if they can be active with friends, if they can use parks and other child-friendly environments. They can run, they can jump, climb and throw. If they choose to, they can play competitive sports such as netball, football, tennis and cricket. They shouldn’t really notice that they are exercising at all and in the programme over the page we’ve included exercises that will get them stronger and fitter without them even realising it. The overriding message is that in order for exercise to become a habit at any age, it should be fun.
As told to Peta Bee
Strength and fitness exercises (all ages)
Build your child’s strength and fitness with these exercises. For most, your child will need a partner but the more the better. The moves should be progressive — try the number of exercises below, but if it is too easy, add a few more or do them for longer.
Mark a distance of 10-15m. Make sure your child partners someone of a similar height and weight if they
are going to take turns, or support their legs yourself. At first, practise very short distances. To make a “wheelbarrow”, the child gets down on all fours with a partner standing behind ready to lift their legs by the ankles. On the word “go”, race to the end of the course. Gradually extend the distance as strength increases.
An old playground game which develops strength and co-ordination. Make sure partners are evenly matched in size. Beginners should start by leaping over a partner who is crouched on the floor, head tucked in, by placing both hands on the middle of their back. As they get stronger, the partner should bend from the waist, keeping knees slightly flexed, head tucked in and hands on thighs as they are leapfrogged over. Add an extra challenge (the snake) by crawling through your partner’s legs after
you have jumped over their back. Perform 6-8 leapfrogs in succession.
Running knee raises
A cross between a skip and a run, this drill is great for developing good knee lift. Get children to start by marching on the spot and then progressing into a forward-moving “skipping” motion where they complete high knee lifts in succession over a distance of 10-15m. Aim for height rather than speed tell them to imagine having a balloon tied to the top of their head.
It’s surprising how many children can’t do the basic hopscotch movement of hopping on one foot, using both feet in succession, and yet it is a superb way to develop strength and co-ordination. Get them to try that first over a 10-15m distance before switching to ten forward hops in each direction, swinging the arms for power and distance.
Mark out a distance of 30-40m and get the children to run half way between a jog and a sprint. Make sure they focus on keeping their head straight, their shoulders relaxed and their hips square to the front. Tell them to imagine they are an Olympic runner with perfect technique.
Start on all fours and begin moving along the ground as quickly as they can. Add variations — move the arm and leg from the same side of the body at the same time, the opposite arm and foot or move sideways. Keep the hips straight and low (as if stalking something in a bush) and then change to a high level crawl. Crawl over 20-30m and run back.
Keeping the head up and back straight, get them to run forwards over 15-20m while flicking up the heels to the buttocks. Alternate sides so that they are kicking left buttock, right buttock. Sprint back and repeat 5-6 times.
Lateral bunny hops
These test co-ordination. Get the children to stand sideways to a marker or cone and to squat down with knees bent. Drive the hips up and swing the arms to get the momentum to jump sideways over the marker and land on both feet with knees bent. Repeat the other way and continue for 20 seconds.
Running exercises (all ages)
Most of these games need at least two children.
Mark out an oval or circle of around 60-80m in diameter. Get two children to stand opposite each other on the outer edge of the circle. Blow a whistle and tell child A to run to child B as quickly as they can around the perimeter of the circle. As they reach them, child B sets off to run the second half of the circle and child A jogs across the middle to be back where they started in time for child B’s arrival. As they get fitter, the children can try full circles (ie, they run a full perimeter before handing over to child B).
Goose and fox
A group of children sit in a circle and one walks behind them tapping each on the head in turn. As they are tapped, a child says either “goose” or “fox”. When the standing child hears the word “fox”, they must race the person who said it around the edge of the circle, aiming to get back to the vacant space first.
Set out an evenly spaced line of markers or cones over 30-40m and ask the children to run as fast as they can in and out of alternate cones in slalom style. Sprint back to the start and repeat or tag a partner.
You can do this with four children or more. Ask the children to line up behind you and stay in line as you jog slowly around the perimeter of a football field or cricket pitch. When you blow the whistle/shout loudly, the last person in the line must sprint to the front of the queue. Continue until everyone has sprinted at least twice.
Use cones to mark out a distance of 20m. Line the children up level with the first cone and ask them to sprint as hard as they can back and forth between the cones. There is no “downtime” here — keep sprinting and pivot-turning until the task is up.
Use markers to create a large circle. Start by asking children to march around with swinging arms. When you blow the whistle/shout you must also instruct a new “activity” such as sprinting, hopping on the right foot, running backwards, star jumping, etc.
Throw and sprint
Throw a beanbag or tennis ball as far as they can ahead of them, rocking their body weight and using plenty of arm and upper-body rotation to generate power. When it lands, tell them to sprint to fetch it. Repeat, alternating the throwing arm.
How to keep your child interested
An analysis involving 25 million children over three decades carried out by the American Heart Association found that it takes children 90 seconds longer to run a mile than their counterparts 30 years ago. The findings, presented last year, revealed that heart-related fitness has dropped 5 per cent per decade since 1975.
Being a lifelong runner and the mother of a nine-year-old, these findings struck a particular chord and prompted me to play a small role in trying to reverse the trend. Four years ago I set up a running club in the Berkshire village where I live. We soon added a junior section and with support from other coaches, and enthusiastic parents, the numbers have swelled to 70 and are growing by the week.
As a fitness journalist, I have access to experts in sports coaching and psychology. What I’ve learnt is that children respond best to a range of activities, that they work better in groups than one-to-one and that exercise must always be fun. A child who is pushed into doing it because “it’s good for them” is one who will lose interest and motivation.
With younger children, don’t “go for a run”. Running as adults think of it (miles on the track or roads) should not start until a child is in his or her teens; a heavy training load shouldn’t be introduced until he or she has stopped growing.
Most athletics and running clubs in the UK will accept children as young as nine as members, but don’t allow them to compete properly until they are 10 or 11. Before this age, children’s fitness should mimic the kind of traditional playground running games that are stop-start in nature. Using this kind of approach, children will develop a level of strength and cardiovascular fitness that they can build on, with more running once they reach 12 to 14. The training plan on the right should help them (and you) get into shape to do just that by the end of the summer. I judge the success of a junior session by the level of laughter that it produces.