Weighing in on weights
The clients at Tracey Keller's gym work hard. Leg presses, seated dips, shoulder presses, lat pulldowns. It's a workout that would make an adult sweat.
But most of Keller's clients are in still in elementary school.
"We want them to come in, have fun, knowing (exercise) doesn't have to be something they dread. It can be fun and hopefully change their life," says Keller of Kids Get Fit, a small gym for kids ages 5-15 on Blanco Road.
Gyms for kids are nothing new — the Little Gym, for example, offers gymnastic instruction to young children. But Kids Get Fit, opened by Keller and her business partner, Tracy Chaco, in November, may be the only gym in San Antonio that offers gym-style strength training for prepubescent kids. The kids do a weight circuit (a la Curves) on machines manufactured especially for children by Hoist Fitness Systems.
It was once believed that pumping iron could hurt the growth plates in young children's bones. But the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have given it the green light.
The latter states that "strength training programs for preadolescents and adolescents can be safe and effective if proper resistance training techniques and safety precautions are followed." But, AAP warns, children should "avoid competitive weight lifting, power lifting, body building and maximal lifts until they reach physical and skeletal maturity."
Despite the proven safety, weight training for kids remains controversial. Some experts think machines and free weights are for adults only.
Kids' fitness is a growing trend, and children younger than 18 represent the second-fastest-growing demographic of health-club membership, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. The trade group estimates that one-third of health clubs in the country offer children's programs, some of which include weight training.
Sarah Kennington brings her home-schooled daughters, 9-year-old Hannah and 10-year-old Hope, to Kids Get Fit three or four days per week. Kennington likes the organized circuit program. "For homeschooling purposes, we needed P.E., and this is perfect," she says.
Her daughters were all smiles as they followed other kids to machine after machine.
"The circuit is fun. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's hard," Hannah said after her workout — which Keller monitored, as she monitors every kid's workout.
"Under supervision, it's probably the safest activity a child can do, at least according to the results of the injury data," says Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., senior fitness/research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass.
Westcott, who served on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports during the Reagan administration and has studied the effects of strength training on kids for more than 20 years, says it can improve strength, strengthen bones, raise metabolism to burn more calories and boost self-confidence, especially among obese children, who don't do well in competitive sports.
Westcott's program, implemented at the YMCA and many school districts in Massachusetts, consists of 15 to 20 minutes of strength training twice a week paired with aerobic conditioning. The kids do one set each of 8-10 basic exercises, focused on the major muscle groups. He recommends that kids be at least 7 years old so they can follow directions.
CATZ Sports San Antonio, a new training center for athletes up to age 17, offers sports-specific weight training and emphasizes building strong muscles and joints to prevent injuries from overuse.
At the facility, part of a national chain, kids use different methods of resistance training. They use their own body weight while doing sit-ups, pushups, lunges and squats. Or they step up on high boxes to work their lower body muscles and roll on an Ab Dolly to increase core strength. They also play with weighted balls. The goal is increasing endurance as well as strength.
"Strength training isn't necessarily bulking up," says Dr. Shaylon Rettig, president of CATZ Sports San Antonio. "If you want to make your muscles work for longer periods of time, that is a form of strength training."
Dr. David Schmidt endorses sports-specific training for kids, but otherwise he doesn't think the effort of weight training is worth it.
"The effectiveness of weight training at a young age is not very high, particularly in males, until their testosterone levels get up a little higher," say Schmidt, team physician for the San Antonio Spurs and doctor at Sports Medicine Associates of San Antonio. "The work they put in is not as efficient."
Stevan Falk has his own concerns with strength training for kids.
"It's not that it's dangerous, it's just totally unnecessary and stupid," says Falk, owner of Bikram Yoga San Antonio and strength conditioning coach at Trinity University. "You're asking them to do something very boring and totally unnecessary. Kids need to be outside playing leapfrog and climbing trees."
Instead of sending their kids to a gym, Falk says, parents should send them outside to get fit the old-fashioned way: playing like kids. It's lack of activity and unhealthy eating habits that have caused the rise in childhood obesity, he says, not lack of weight training.
"The fact that we're even discussing whether a kid should be doing strength training is a tremendous comment on what's going on in our society today," he says.