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CindySays: Strength and interval exercise better for overweight youths

By Cindy Boggs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dear Cindy,

I am writing to you about my 9-year-old son. He is overweight and each year is less and less active. I have tried to involve him in sports, but he is not interested. I've persuaded him a few times to walk with me in the evening, but he doesn't like to go. I know he needs more exercise, but nothing interests him, and I am out of ideas. His best friend is also overweight and was just diagnosed with high blood pressure! Can you advise? -- Worried

Dear Worried,

I certainly understand your concern and frustration. Unfortunately, there are a great number of parents struggling with this same issue. It's a Catch-22 when overweight children pull back from physical activity.

Imagine this scenario: As the child becomes less active, they begin gaining weight. As they gain weight, they find more ways to spend time sedentary (TV, Internet, video games). They continue to gain weight and lose confidence until they are no longer comfortable with activity. Parents recognize this lifestyle as unhealthy and try motivating them to become active, and it is almost always met with opposition.

Encouraging an overweight child to play a sport typically backfires because they usually lack the self-esteem and experience to jump into a competitive situation. They realize they're not equipped and predict it's not going to end well.

How did we get here?

Less physical activity in physical education classes and elimination of active recess in many schools certainly figure into the mix. Add the prevalence of fast food, the rise in popularity of inactive video games and you have a pretty potent recipe for childhood obesity.

Childhood obesity is an epidemic in our nation and, sadly, statistics tell us that overweight/obese children grow up to be overweight/obese adults. They don't outgrow it. A leading researcher on this subject is Wayne L. Westcott, a professor of exercise science at Quincy College in Quincy, Mass., who has written 24 books on physical fitness and youth. He recognizes the role self-esteem plays in how physical activity is perceived. The connection is undeniable.

Something has to change

Westcott is dedicated to reversing the trend of childhood obesity because he knows these young people face a significantly higher risk of chronic disease -- heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, degenerative conditions, high blood pressure -- if they remain sedentary.

He explains, "They generally don't do well in endurance activities, such as soccer, or jumping activities, such as basketball. They don't even like to play tag because they are always It. Psychologically, research shows that obese children score very low in self-image and self-confidence. They seldom play sports."

This is why he has studied the effects of resistance training (working on strength) and interval training in youths.

A different way to move

Westcott has discovered that children are not drawn to the same type of exercise programming as adults. For example, he said, elementary school-age children "exercise all-out for 30 to 60 seconds, then they rest. After a minute or two of recovery, they exercise all-out again for 30 to 60 seconds. They basically have an innate ability to exercise in an interval-training manner.

"Conversely, most young people do not fit the adult exercise model of a five-minute warm-up, 30 minutes of continuous cycling or jogging, followed by a five-minute cool-down. One important physical activity that matches children's physiological factors is strength exercise. They perform a 30- to 60-second set of strength exercise, rest a minute or two, then perform another set of strength exercise. In addition, heavier kids typically lift more weight than their lighter peers, making this one of the few activities in which overweight children experience success."

Youth-oriented programs

Age-appropriate activity with strength and conditioning exercise as a foundation is usually more apt to engage youth and make them feel successful. It doesn't require scorekeeping but does reward progress at every stage. It doesn't pit children against one another; in fact, it focuses on team building and creates an atmosphere of peer support. Lively games using interesting fitness tools is motivating and comes with multiple opportunities for positive reinforcement. This is the type of physical activity I would advise you seek out for your son.

Because of the extensive youth fitness studies, the protocol and guidelines regarding the amount of resistance, the number of repetitions and the rate of progression is clearly defined. The American Academy of Pediatrics supports strength and resistance training programs, even for prepubescent children who are monitored by well-trained adults and take into account the child's maturation level.

Remarkable results

According to Westcott, overweight children who do one to three nonconsecutive resistance workouts a week "average almost 3 pounds more lean [muscle] tissue and 3 pounds less fat every 8 to 10 weeks of training."

This activity can be exciting and effective where there are equal amounts of challenge, achievement and reinforcement. Connecting your son to a stimulating program can help him develop a more positive attitude toward fitness and equip him with the essentials for becoming both a physically and mentally stronger adult.

Cindy Boggs, fitness presenter, author and Activate America director, has been an ACE-certified instructor/trainer since 1989. Send your questions about fitness, training or health to her at YMCA of Kanawha Valley, 100 YMCA Drive, Charleston, WV 25311, or email cindysays@aol.com. Look for Cindy's award-winning fitness advice book, "CindySays ... You Can Find Health in Your Hectic World," at www.cindysays.com, or contact the YMCA at 304-340-3527.


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