Children and Exercise: Advise from an “Expert”

By: Angela Corcoran, MS, CSCS – Head of Education at The Academy, Co-Founder & Educator at Innovative Wellness Consulting

Like Clarke Kent, I was not born knowing my destiny which has so clearly unfolded for me over the past six years. On March 13, 2003 I received the news that we were going to have a baby. After years of being told that this was implausible, you can imagine our shock when we were told. As an Exercise Physiologist, I learned throughout my academic career that exercise is a magic cure for almost any ailment but of course had not assumed this was an area in my life that would change. Having planned a life without children, I was suddenly looking down the road of uncertainty. The youngest in my entire family, babies were not my forte and pregnancy did not fit into my plans of running the New York City Marathon in November when I would be full term. I had no idea in that moment how my life would change; how my daughter would awaken in me super human desire to contribute to the good of the nation and start for me an unbelievable adventure.
Before I had a child of my own the explanation as to why children were (and still are) the largest growing diseased population as a result of physical inactivity seemed obvious. With the evolution of video games and the disintegration of the stay at home mom, families just weren’t investing time into each other. Of course I knew there was no way this would happen to me, or my family, the solutions seemed obvious. But when our daughter was born, it became clear that the solution was not obvious. Almost immediately the biggest commodity (other than sleep) became time.
I wasn’t eating well and I certainly wasn’t getting in daily exercise. But it was through this experience that I began to explore what individuals in my industry, the fitness industry, were doing. One recommendation was mom and baby yoga. For me this did not work. I am a true believer in the physical results from Yoga, but with the mom and baby I just didn’t break a sweat. I tried multiple classes, weeks were passing and none proved physically strenuous enough for me. In my frustration I did what any normal product of the 80’s would do. I came home with my daughter, downloaded some gratuitous 80’s music, Madonna, Crowded House, Michael Jackson, and had a make shift dance party with my toddler in the comfort of my own home. Sweaty and out of breath, having to take breaks from jumping on the bed, and laughing so hard that we were crying it never dawned on me that this, this was exercise.
As exercise professionals we so often feel that we have all of the answers to exercise and maintaining health, but my epiphany didn’t come from a place of answers, it came from a place of questions. One morning after a jog we had an exclusive Madonna dance party. Suddenly in the middle of Material Girl, I heard a sound that would forever change my interpretation of exercise, “beep, beep, and beep”; I was in my target heart rate zone. Suddenly it dawned on me, I was having fun with my daughter and she was no longer a passive observer in my jogger stroller, she was an active participant. For a solid thirty minutes I was exercising at heart rates that exceeded what I normally accomplished on the track, and I felt great! My daughter certainly was having a similar cardiovascular response to mine and she was enjoying every minute of time we were spending together. I started to think about her little body and her need for exercise. Ironically even as a personal trainer, it did not dawn on me until then that children have very clear established needs for exercise. I needed to educate myself on what normal exercise was for children. What would her response be to cardiovascular exercise and was a small amount of resistance training okay? I tore into textbooks and the internet searching for answers to my questions on children and exercise.
I learned a lot about children and the need for them to participate in physical activity and that very few get the recommended minimum exercise requirement. Physical inactivity is one of the two major causes of overweight children and of childhood obesity, poor nutrition being the second. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) is a program of studies designed to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States. Data from NHANES I (1971–1974) to NHANES II (2003–2006) showed increases in the rates of obese and overweight individuals among all age groups, however the rates among children are quite astonishing. Among preschool-aged children, aged two – five years, the prevalence increased from 5.0% to 12.4%. In fact if current rates continue, by 2015 1 in every 4 children in the United States will be obese.
The research that I found showed that as weight increases to reach the levels referred to as “overweight” and “obesity,“ the risks for Coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, Cancers (endometrial, breast, and colon), Hypertension (high blood pressure), Dyslipidemia (for example, high total cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides), Stroke, Liver and Gallbladder disease, Sleep apnea and respiratory problems, Osteoarthritis (a degeneration of cartilage and its underlying bone within a joint), Gynecological problems leading to abnormal menses, and infertility also increase. In addition to increases in weight, if you add physical inactivity it alone may contribute to poor development of the pre-front cortex of the brain, an impaired ability to read and to develop vocabulary, an inability to self regulate behavior and poor academic achievement.
I learned about the idea of leisure time physical activity versus non-leisure time physical activity. Leisure time physical activity is the time spent intentionally performing physical activity, non-leisure time physical activity is the time through daily life where the activities performed require one to be physically active. One potential theory as to why statistics regarding children, disease and physical inactivity are so alarmingly high was that the amount of non-leisure time physical activity for children has decreased to such a great degree that the amount of leisure time required to compensate for that loss is much higher than initially prescribed. Increased use of non-active technology and lack of green space clearly contribute to non-leisure time physical inactivity as fewer children walk or bike to school, participate in recess or even have access to gym class. Increased TV and video game time and increased working hours from two parent families all pose potential contributors to decreases in leisure time physical activity.
In fact, for otherwise healthy children the current recommendation for cardiovascular exercise alone was and still is one hour daily in addition to any non-leisure time physical activity in which that child is already participating. Put into perspective, for otherwise healthy adults the requirement is a cumulative 150 minutes of cardiovascular activity weekly, or 30 minutes most days of the week. Children need to intentionally exercise every day for one full hour. I never considered that I might need to incorporate exercise into my daughters’ daily routine; that her daily need for exercise was greater than mine. I found books that told children about their bodies and how they work, but very few suggested effective solutions to incorporate exercise into a daily routine. Lifestyle has changed and with it, so has the amount of non-leisure time physical activity making daily exercise requirements for children far greater than many families understand. Many books get families thinking, but none empower them to make change. I wanted to make change and the clarity of purpose I felt in this moment was an epiphany, I wanted to empower parents, just like us, whom I knew must be having the same experiences to reclaim their health, and the health of their children, through eating healthy and exercising.
The past 5 years of my life have been an amazing journey. I have continued my runs and in November I did finally run the NYC marathon! With the help of my daughter who is now five, and fit as a fiddle, I have created a number of exercise adventures that parents and well as personal trainers can do with children in different environments without spending money on gym equipment. I have become an expert on Children and Exercise.

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