Is it safe for young people to work out regularly? Find out how children can exercise effectively with the right activities for their age and development
With social media and gossip magazines always at our fingertips, body image has become a constant subject that borders on obsession.
While many adults take pride in appearance and exercise to lose weight, tone or achieve that perfect Instagram-worthy six pack, there’s understandably a concern over whether this is healthy both physically and mentally for young people.
It’s normal for children’s bodies to change as they grow and to constantly compare themselves to friends or celebrities. But is it safe for them to exercise to achieve this look? What age should they start hitting the gym and what types of exercises are beneficial? The experts weigh in…
First things first
When it comes to teenagers who exercise, some may be looking to just get in shape, while for others peer pressure, social media and society’s portrayals of an ideal and often unattainable body type motivates them.
Alarmingly, a 2010 study by Zayed University found that a quarter of students registered unhealthy eating disorders and three quarters reported feeling dissatisfied with their body shape.
Dr Melvin A Simon, specialist paediatrician at NMC Speciality Hospital, explains that many teens can cause damage to their bodies trying to achieve an unrealistic goal through training. An obsession with working out can lead to problems with nutrition if teens place themselves on an unnecessarily restricted diet, while high protein intake to build muscles can cause malnutrition and increase load on kidneys.
“Sexual maturation, particularly in young females, can be impaired or delayed through training stress and low body fat level, poor nutrition or malnutrition caused by restrictive diets and excessive exercise without proper nutrition,” Dr Melvin explains.
Despite the concerns of malnutrition and excess exercise, experts agree that physical activity is beneficial to children from an early age, if done properly and in a safe and monitored environment.
“With obesity and diabetes rates continuing to increase in the young, it is essential that children engage in physical activity as a part of a healthy lifestyle,”
Dr Melvin says.
While adults often turn to the gym, children and teenagers should be aware of the risks to their growing bodies.
High intensity workouts and heavy weight lifting are two of the most dangerous activities for young people and should be avoided until the body reaches maturity.
“Children’s bodies, in contrast to adults’, are developing rapidly, their muscles are relatively weaker and their bones are less rigid,” says Dr Melvin.
“Children also do not tolerate heat as well as adults and become rapidly dehydrated.
“While low impact, low resistance and strength training workouts can be beneficial if done properly, heavy workouts such as weight lifting can cause muscle strain and sprains, overuse injuries, heat exhaustion and heat stroke if hydration is not carefully controlled, as well as injury to growing joints and growth plates.
“Until children reach 18, they remain at risk for cartilage, tendon and bone plate damage in particular,” explains Dr Melvin.
“High impact and heavy weight loading can cause damage to the growth plates in children and adolescents.”
Growth plates are essential to a body’s development and a number of injuries can be caused during adolescence by intense workouts.
Common problems can include impaired growth, damage to the growth plate in the heel bone, inflammation of the growth plate in the shinbone and stress fractures, which occur when muscles become fatigued and over-stressed bones crack.
So what is the best approach for young people as they begin their journey to a healthy lifestyle?
“All gym training and heavy workouts should be carried out in a supervised controlled environment with proper equipment and protection with qualified trainers who know and understand the developing body,” advises Dr Melvin.
“In the end, you should benefit from exercise; exercise should not rule your life.”
Finding a balance
While some exercises could be harmful to the development of young people, there are a lot of activities and workouts that children can take part in to get in better shape without causing problems to their future health.
“Entering a child into a tough exercise regime is one hundred percent dependent on their development,” explains Chris Wraithmail, head of fitness at Advantage Sports UAE.
“All children develop at different rates; their growth, maturity and confidence all need to be taken into account.
“I love to design children’s programs based around as many movements as possible.
“I have two young children of my own… We work on exercises including going from sitting to standing, jumping and twisting, running to crawling and skipping to rolling.”
Generally, experts agree that children aged five to 18 should take part in at least 60 minutes of exercise each day. This might include anything from dog walking and cycling to more vigorous exercise like team sports, martial arts and running.
Muscle strengthening activities like sit-ups, climbing and gymnastics are also options.
“The key thing I always avoid with children is weight training,” adds Chris.
“A teen is still going through muscular and connective tissue development and it makes no sense to overload something that is already weak.
“I personally made the same mistake when I was in my teens, and suffered with shoulder problems for years after.
“Safety is the main reason to avoid [weightlifting], but secondly because it isn’t necessary to aid their development.”
While it’s a positive sign that young people take an interest in fitness, it’s vital that they understand exercise is about more than physical appearance.
“Being in good shape for me means more than just looking good in the mirror,” says Chris.
“For me it’s being packed full of energy, being confident in your own ability and being able to accomplish things easier.
“To be in good shape requires a perfect balance of exercise and not forgetting food intake, including a large amount of fruits, vegetables and proteins.
“Ultimately, I cannot emphasise enough making enjoyment a crucial part of the exercise your child does.
“Exercise should not be something they dread, it should be something they enjoy.”
Where to work out?
If you’re sure your child wants to work out for the right reasons, help them on their fitness journey at these professional centres with dedicated activities for youth.
Helping young people to develop their fitness and get in shape, specially designed classes have been crafted at CrossFit Yas. Divided into age groups from toddlers to teens, participants learn to utilise their body’s movements, safe ways to train and play fun games, plus, the first class is free. Classes have stopped for the summer but are set to resume in September. From AED 550 for eight classes, prices subject to change. Vogue Fitness, Yas Marina, Yas Island. Sun-Thu 5.30am-9.30pm, Fri 8am-midnight, Sat 9am-4pm. Contact: 02 583 2380, vfuae.com
At Primal Gym, youngsters can join fitness classes focused on mixed light and basic exercises or sample martial arts classes crafted specifically for kids. All carried out under supervision from qualified and trusted professionals, young people from ages five to 13 can take part and give their fitness a boost. First class is free, AED 500 for a month pass. Amaya Towers, Reem Island. Sat-Thu 8am-9pm, Fri 9am-midnight. Contact: 050 296 2157, primal.ae
Helping young people to get active, this multi-sports operator provides classes for kids aged six months and up. Classes on offer include swimming, yoga, jiu jitsu, football, gymnastics and dance, giving young people a variety of safe ways to keep active. From AED 65 per class. Various locations including The St Regis Saadiyat Island and Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel and Resort. Times vary. Contact: 055 807 2482, advantagesportsuae.com
At Adrenagy, kids can work out in their own dedicated area with special equipment designed for their age group under supervision by professionals. Children can also participate in a variety of classes including circuit training, group exercise and mixed martial arts, tailored to those aged eight to 15. Prices available on request. Khalifa Park, Gate 1. Sun-Wed 6am-11pm, Thu 6am-9am, Fri 2pm-9pm and Sat 9am-11pm. Contact: 02 444 1121, adrenagy.com