Physical activity is important for children of all ages. The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends children to spend at least one hour of aerobic exercise per day, and recommend incorporating strength training three times per week.
Although working out is great for all children, it’s important to pick an age-appropriate activity. A 4-year-old child can’t do the same types of exercise as an 8-year-old.
In this article, we’ll give you the guidelines to choose age-appropriate activities and programs for your children.
The Best Age To Start Working Out
Kids can be physically active from the earliest age. Most experts agree they can start resistance training from 7 years old. However, they should gradually build from active play to more challenging strength workouts.
Besides choosing an activity that’s fun for your child, it’s also crucial to pick something that’s age appropriate. As long as you select the right program, no time is too early for your child to start working out.
Though things can vary depending on the child, here are some recommendations you can use to choose a proper activity for a kid of any age.
First Phase – Ages 2 to 3
Before the age of two, there’s no need to focus on any particular exercise. Allow your kid to tumble, crawl and learn to walk. After that, you can slowly start incorporating simple exercises that help them develop essential motor and coordination skills.
Just learning to handle and throw a ball, for example, is a great choice of an exercise. Furthermore, it’s crucial to make physical activity a fun and social experience at this stage, so they develop an enthusiasm towards exercise.
Second Phase – Ages 3 to 5
At this age, children are becoming more active and are able to do slightly more complex training. Regular activity will help improve their bone health and maintain a healthy weight.
This is also when children are becoming more social with their peers, and is a good time to start playing team sports, like basketball, volleyball and football. However, it’s all about having fun at this point, as they are only beginning to learn the skills. Avoid situations which are too competitive.
Another great way to boost the skills and health of your child of this age is swimming. Introduce them to water through a basic course, and make it a safe and pleasant experience for them. Experts agree that children are ready to learn basic strokes by the age of 5.
Third Phase: Ages 5 to 8
If your child hasn’t tried a group sport yet – now is a great time to do it. Between 5 and 8, kids begin to be able to pass a ball, learn gymnastic routines and ride a two-wheeled bike. But rather than specializing for anything, it’s best to expose them to diverse activities.
By varying sports and routines, you are preventing overuse injuries and allow your child a healthy development. This is the best time to build skills for movement and endurance. You can begin basic strength training, but focus only on body weight movements.
Fourth Phase: Ages 8 to 12
This last pre-puberty period is when children develop coordination, and become skillful at sports. It’s a period when competition begins to motivate them, as long as you’re supportive despite the outcome.
Strength training is great for them throughout this period, but there’s still no need to add weights. They will often grow a passion for a specific activity at this age, and some will want to participate in competitions and sporting events.
Fifth Phase: 12 to 15
When they reach adolescence, many kids loose interests in sports they used to enjoy. Rather than forcing a structured team sport environment, you can begin to get them into more advanced training. At this age, gyms will allow them to lift weights when you’re joining them, and many teens gravitate towards strength and cardio exercise.
If you wish to start strength training with children, begin with bands, pyrometric and body weight exercises. Focus on developing a habit and teach them the importance of consistency. This period is also when some kids develop insecurities or even mental illness, so it’s important to focus the workouts on building self-esteem and a positive mindset.
Final Phase: 15 to 20
Once your teen is 15, and if they’ve been active in the previous years, they are ready to lift weights. It’s ok to begin lifting heavier at this point, but proper form is still crucial. Encourage them to join a class or invest in a couple sessions with a professional trainer.
Athletic children who trained a sport will begin to train professionally and compete, and that’s great as long as its accompanied by proper strength and condition workouts. Some will have more interest in marathons and similar events. Whichever option they go for, it’s great as long as it’s safe and enjoyable for them.
The Best Age To Start Lifting Weights
We briefly mentioned weights in the previous section. However, there’s a lot of misconception about this particular type of exercise, so let’s explore it further.
Weights are an awesome way for children to build their strength. Although most people believe lifting before puberty can stunt their growth, experts and studies have confirmed that is only a myth.
It’s safe and beneficial for children to begin weight training as young as 7 or 8 years old. It’s the same time they’re encouraged to join team sports, as at this time they’re able to understand rules of proper form, follow safety procedures and listen to directions.
Except for the obvious benefit of increased strength, including weights at an early age helps to increase bone density and in maintaining healthy weight. It also helps on a mental level by helping children build discipline and self-esteem. It can encourage overweight or nonathletic children, as they can excel in lifting weights much more than in other activities that require specific skills.
Though children can begin weight training before puberty, that is not the time for focusing on building larger muscles or lifting heavy. The goal should be learning technique and form, achieved with lighter weights.
At this age high repetitions are best for children. If they can’t perform an exercise for more than 8 reps, it’s time to lower the weight until they can reach 15 with proper form and without excessive exhaustion.
Forcing heavy lifting can damage the joints, ligaments and grow plates. But if you stick to lower weights, there’s no reason not to incorporate them into your child’s physical routine.
How To Choose A Program For Your Child?
So, you know your children can workout in their earliest stages, and lift weights as soon as they’re 7 or 8. But what programs are best for children and how to make the experience enjoyable for them?
Before thinking about programming, first consider these three questions:
Does the child want to train?
Some children naturally gravitate towards physical activity. Others can be indifferent or even fearful if they don’t know what to expect. Forcing a child with such an attitude may build their strength, but isn’t good for their mental health. In this case, you will need to have more patience, educate them, and try out a couple of different activities until they find something they want to do.
Does it fit their schedule?
So your child wants to train, and they are excited about physical activity. That’s awesome – but it doesn’t mean you should overwhelm their schedule. Children have many obligations for school and physical activity should be well scheduled, so they still have enough free time.
If your child’s schedule is packed, don’t add more to a full plate. Plan no more than three sessions a week, add exercises in the weekend or break up exercise into shorter sessions so it doesn’t become something they’re stressed about.
What does the activity focus on?
Before you create or search for a program, prioritize a positive atmosphere and a safe environment. Whether it’s the gym, a group sport or a home exercise, activity shouldn’t be something that discourages them. Although you can challenge your children, you should always make sure it’s something that motivates them, rather than lowering their confidence.
Make sure to reward children for their achievements and don’t shy away from positive feedback. The term “no pain no gain” doesn’t extend to children. They should feel good, positive and have fun when they are doing the activity.
Once your kid is motivated to work out, the activity is well scheduled and it’s something positive, here are a couple of more things you should consider. These factors are known among coaches, but can be useful if you plan to program the activity yourself.
CNS – CNS is short for Central Nervous System Maturity. This refers to the current maturity of the child’s muscular system and includes motor control. It also means you are helping the child to advance their CNS, by incorporating proper weight, intensity as well as exercises they are able to perform safely. You can use the above described phases of childhood to help with determining these exercises, but also have a consultation with an expert.
Biological Maturity: Biological maturity or age isn’t something that’s visible nor the same in all children. It refers to the development of tissues and organ systems in the body which can mature at a different time and rate. It also includes the development of bones and lung capacity, which directly impacts the proper exercise program for the child.
Hormonal Issues – This one is primarily important for strength training. Since androgenic hormones are low in children before puberty, it is not possible for them to promote hypertrophy or respond to such programs. Strength training and strength gains, on the other hand, are possible and determined by the firmness of the muscle.
Mental Health – The last but no less important factor of programming is the child’s mental development and condition. This refers to both their ability to learn and follow rules, as well as their emotional response to exercise.
While the mental state and readiness of the child is something you can determine yourself, other physical factors are not as straightforward. That’s why it would be best to schedule a consultation with a physician before you begin any type of program.
How To Train With Your Children?
The previous section explained some foundations and factors you should consider for programming. This section is focused on specific things you can do and ways you should act to make training an awesome experience for children of any age.
There are two factors you should focus on: fun and individuality.
Fun means kids should enjoy the activity and develop an interest for it. For children, fun means there’s a good balance of challenge and achievement, ability to play with friends, and curiosity for learning new things. At this age, having fun is the largest reason why children will want to play sports and be active.
Individuality means that just choosing age appropriate activity from a chart isn’t enough. Programs need to be adjusted to the specific child, and their level of interest, development and maturity. Whether it’s a group program, a sport or individual workout – it should be adapted to the child – and their feedback should be listened and taken into the account.
To start working out with a kid of any age, here are some more things you should look for and focus on in the program:
The program has a long term approach
The child is educated on physical activity, including proper form and technique
The program supports the child’s’ motor skills and physical development at their current stage
There is time for non-structured play and just having fun
The kid is able to give feedback
The child isn’t forced to do anything
By taking all these things into account, the child of any age can begin working out and it will help to develop their physical health and overall well-being.
Can Weight Lifting Stunt A Child’s Growth?
The simple answer to this is no – contrary to the common opinion, weight lifting won’t stunt growth. The proper age to start lifting weights isn’t based on chronological age, rather than their maturity to understand and follow guidelines. Children should avoid doing heavy lifting, but it’s completely ok for children to lift lower weights to develop healthy weight and build strength.
What’s The Minimum Age To Join The Gym?
The minimum age in most gyms is age 13 when the child is accompanied by a parent. At this age, kids should still focus on lower weights and higher reps. At age of 15 and above, teens are able to visit the gym on their own in most gyms, after they go through an orientation and understand proper form and technique. If they have previous experience, they can also begin to lift heavier weights at this age.
It’s never too early or too late to start working out. Children of any age should be encouraged to be physically active. However, choosing age appropriate activity as well as something enjoyable is crucial to make the experience enjoyable and safe for your children.