Todd Galati by Todd Galati

Youth need regular opportunities to be physically active. Unfortunately, schools are not meeting their needs through physical education classes and recess, and many children and adolescents live in neighborhoods with limited space and options for safe, age-appropriate physical activity outside of school hours.

To address this topic, the American Council on Exercise and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation co-hosted a Twitter chat - #ActiveKidsActiveFuture - on November 8, 2017. The chat focused on creating afterschool physical activity programs for youth, with strong participation from national and local health, fitness and recreation leaders who shared their insights around successful programs, challenges and available resources. #ActiveKidsActiveFuture highlighted the role that exercise professionals can play in leading fitness programs that provide positive physical activity experiences which, in turn, will encourage lifelong adoption of healthy habits. Exercise professionals in all communities need to get involved for these programs to make a significant impact in reducing the rising dual-epidemic of childhood inactivity and obesity.

Understanding Physical Literacy in Youth

While youth fitness settings vary by community, ranging from afterschool programs and youth sports to local recreation and faith-based facilities, there are key variables that all programs can focus on to foster physical literacy – defined by The Aspen Institute’s Project Play as “the ability, confidence, and desire to be physically active for life.”

The attributes of physical literacy – ability, confidence and desire – are built through positive physical activity experiences that are diverse, fun, appropriate and safe. Free play can provide these experiences, especially for younger participants, but societal changes have reduced the availability of these opportunities in schools, recreation centers and community parks. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Path to Excellence Survey found that there was a decrease in the percentage of athletes reporting unstructured activity with friends – free play – as a means of introduction to their sport, dropping from 35% of athletes on the initial survey (1984 to 1998) to 24% on the most recent survey (2000 to 2012).

The Importance of Quality Coaching and Fun

In this same USOC survey, athletes also reported that quality coaching was important to their development from a young age. Quality coaching is equally important for youth participating in recreational activities and leagues, and even more so for youth who are inactive and behind in their development of fundamental motor skills such as running, throwing, catching, kicking, balancing, twisting, jumping and landing. Without these skills, inactive youth will continue to fall behind their peers, increasing their chances of becoming inactive adults. Exercise professionals can develop and lead programs that incorporate these skills into moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), helping youth to build toward the recommended 60 minutes of MVPA per day while increasing their self-efficacy for participation in a variety of activities.

Motor skills and MVPA are not enough to build a successful program. While it may seem obvious, programs will fail if youth participants do not enjoy them. Fun is at the heart of successful youth fitness programs. In recreational programs, fun should be the primary focus of each class with skill, strength, flexibility, balance and cardiorespiratory endurance activities sprinkled among the fun. In competitive leagues, fun activities can be used as transitions from one challenging drill to the next or woven in as competitive games between small groups.

An important factor in building fun is variety, or the sampling of many different activities. Sampling is the opposite of specialization. Early specialization among young athletes has become more common, with leagues in many sports now offering multiple seasons throughout the year. This early specialization can lead to overuse injuries from repetitive motions, a lack of development of other motor skills and burnout. Early sampling on the other hand provides youth with the chance to develop well-rounded motor skills while learning a variety of activities. This gives them the ability and confidence required to build physical literacy, providing them with self-efficacy required to try new activities.

Ensuring Safety in Youth Programs

Youth fitness programs should be comprised of activities, exercises and training volumes that are appropriate for the health, fitness, ages and skill-levels of participants. The exercise environment should be assessed daily to ensure that it is hazard-free and adequate for the planned activities and group size. Equipment should be regularly inspected to ensure that it is working properly or that it is removed for repairs or replacement. Leaders of youth fitness programs should always know the location of first aid equipment and the protocols for emergencies. Safety should never be compromised in youth or adult programs.

Wrapping Up

Engaging inactive youth in fun physical activity programs that build physical literacy is crucial for their development and the current and future health of the nation.  Exercise professionals with the enthusiasm for and proper education for working with children and adolescents have tremendous opportunity to make an impact on the health of our youth by serving as leaders and teaching them how to become active and stay active into adulthood.

ACE readies fitness professionals, health coaches and other wellness experts to contribute to the national response to the obesity epidemic and other chronic diseases. Find out more about ACE’s Advocacy efforts.