Busy lifestyles can often mean that kids are spending less time exercising and more time in front of a computer or TV screen. Encouraging children to participate in sports can not only help kids enjoy exercise, but may have long-term health and wellness benefits.
“Childhood obesity is a growing problem, and an active lifestyle helps to counteract that,” says John Dawkins, MD, a family and sports medicine physician at Scripps Clinic. “Without exercise, kids learn to be sedentary. If they remain sedentary as adults, even at a normal weight they can be at risk for health problems such as heart attack and stroke. By developing healthy habits early — including regular exercise — children are more likely to continue with those habits later in life.”
Participating in sports has a variety of benefits for kids that extend beyond weight control and cardiovascular health; it can also help your child improve coordination and balance.
“Our bodies tend to improve on the functions we use more often,” says Dr. Dawkins. “Activities such as running, catching and throwing that are involved in team sports help to develop the neural pathways between the brain and body that are important for coordination and balance.”
Increased physical activity also has a number of cognitive and psychological benefits. Sports activities help children learn important social skills such as team work and personal discipline. In addition, studies have shown that kids who are physically active perform better in school than those who are sedentary and they may also feel more confident and be happier in general.
Unfortunately, sports do carry a risk of injury. With the proper precautions these risks can be reduced. Start by making sure your child is using the appropriate equipment and safety gear such as helmets, and knee and elbow pads that fit properly.
Help your child prevent muscle strain by making sure they participate in a proper warm up and cool down. “Kids should break a sweat with controlled activity before forcefully contracting or stretching,” advises Dr. Dawkins. “Warm muscles are more pliable and this can help to prevent muscle strains.”
Before starting any sport, have your young athlete cleared by a doctor to participate. If they are participating for the first time, your child’s doctor can make sure it’s safe for them to play. If they are returning to a sport after an injury, their doctor can make sure they are healed enough to prevent re-injury.
Sports for kids should be less about performance and more about fun. If your child is uncomfortable with their activity or feels stressed about their skill level, they’ll be less likely to want to participate and may even learn to dislike sports or exercise. Talk to your kids about what they like to do and what sports interest them. Make sure to keep all sports discussions positive and encourage rather than pressure kids to participate.
“You can start encouraging an interest in exercise by playing sports with your kids when they are young,” says Dr. Dawkins. “That way becoming involved in organized team sports becomes a natural transition as they get older.”
If your child is reluctant to become involved in ball sports such as soccer or softball, try introducing individual physical activities such as dance, track or karate. They’ll still reap the health benefits of exercising as well as the social benefits that come from interacting with their peers in a fun yet structured environment.
“It also helps if they can find teams where they can play with their friends. This helps reduce potential intimidation,” notes Dr. Dawkins.