Building a reserve of muscular strength and cardiorespiratory fitness during adulthood to offset the inevitable decline in markers of physical fitness as we age is a well-established approach for healthy aging. However, the decline in physical fitness does not begin during adulthood, but rather during the primary school years, when too many children become disinterested and disengaged in active play, exercise and sport activities. While adult fitness habits can certainly shape the marginal decade, the optimal time to establish and reinforce healthy lifestyle behaviors is during the first 10 years of life. That is, during the foundational decade.
Today’s youth are weaker and slower than previous generations and a vast majority are not accumulating at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous- physical activity (MVPA) daily. Findings from the Global Matrix 4.0 Physical Activity Report Card illustrate that physical-activity levels are low across the globe, with only 27 to 33% of children and adolescents meeting the recommended amount of MVPA. The troubling consequences of physical inactivity during the foundational decade include weak muscles, reduced motor skills, poor bone health, sleep issues, academic concerns and mental health challenges. Further, physical inactivity early in life increases the risk of developing chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart-related issues later in life.
Collective efforts are needed to activate every individual for a lifetime of physical activity. Yet, youth are active in different ways and for different reasons than older populations. While most adults participate in MVPA to improve selected markers of health and well-being, children participate in active play, exercise and sport activities to have fun, make friends and learn something new. Further, aiming to accumulate a predetermined quantity of MVPA (or burn a certain number of calories) overlooks the importance of connecting with friends, creating new games, expressing emotions, developing social skills and experiencing the joy of moving. While the traditional approach to programming exercise focuses on dose-response relationships between MVPA and selected health benefits, exercise professionals who work with youth ought to consider the quality of the movement experience to enhance enjoyment, adherence and outcomes.
Exercise professionals can integrate developmentally appropriate strength, skill and aerobic activities into youth exercise programs. Instead of thinking that less active children will simply “outgrow” physical inactivity, well-designed interventions are needed to target neuromuscular deficits and overcome barriers to alter the trajectory toward physical inactivity and related comorbidities. Importantly, strength-building activities should not be overlooked, as a prerequisite level of muscular strength is needed to jump, kick and run proficiently. While most youth will develop a minimal level of muscular strength with periodic bouts of MVPA, regular participation in strength-building activities is needed to develop robust physical capacities that support ongoing participation in a variety of active play, exercise and sport activities.
Just like food macronutrients are needed for maintaining overall health and well-being, three main fitness macronutrients are needed by the growing body to support muscular strength development, movement skill competency and cardiovascular function during the foundational decade.
Macronutrients of youth fitness
Since habits established early in life tend to track or carry over into adulthood, it is important to spark an ongoing interest in active play, exercise and sport activities throughout the whole day. Viewed from this perspective, MVPA should be considered a behavior that needs to be nourished with positive experiences, creative thinking, proper progression and enjoyable social interactions. This is where the art and science of designing youth fitness programs comes into play because knowledge of the potential benefits of MVPA needs to be balanced with an understanding of the physical and psychosocial needs of youth. Physically active youth are confident and competent in a range of physical activities within the family, school and community structure, and may help others acquire the necessary skills and behaviors that support an active lifestyle. The “F-words” of youth physical activity can help to inform practice and activate today’s youth:
Fun: Encourage participation in physical activities that are enjoyable, challenging and engaging. Ask youth to try new exercises or create new games to find an activity that resonates with them. Offer a range of structured and unstructured activities so youth can explore what they like while experiencing real-time feelings of fun and excitement. In addition to popular sports, such as basketball and soccer, activities like ultimate frisbee, skateboarding and martial arts can enhance physical fitness in a fun and engaging way.
Family: Seek family support and participation in a variety of physical activities, including family walks, bike rides and recreational sports. Support from parents and siblings can help to strengthen family bonds, establish healthy behaviors and make physical activity a part of daily life. Educate parents and caregivers about the importance of daily MVPA and offer ideas for making fitness a family priority.
Fitness: Instead of isolating fitness components, integrate strength, skill and aerobic activities into youth fitness programs. Exercise professionals should appreciate the foundational importance of strength-building activities and recognize the value of building a strength reserve for sustainable participation in exercise and sport activities. Guidance and education from skilled exercise professionals can help to develop and reinforce desired movement patterns.
Feelings: Celebrate the process of participation instead of the product of success. Spark an ongoing interest in exercise and sport activities by discovering special talents, inspiring innovation, monitoring progress and creating a sense of belonging. A creative fitness challenge with playful activities and appropriately challenging yet achievable goals can help youth feel good about their accomplishments as they connect with friends and build their emotional strength.
Flourish: Green exercise (i.e., MVPA in outdoor natural settings such as parks, playgrounds and green spaces) can provide a needed break from cell phones and an opportunity for some sunshine. Create an outdoor adventure challenge, build a mini-obstacle course, start a nature scavenger hunt or play a game of tag. Spend time outside, explore natural settings, listen to sounds and interact with nature.
If you are interested in working with young people and giving them the gift of fitness, consider becoming an ACE Youth Fitness Specialist (worth 2.5 ACE CECs). This program will teach you to develop and lead fitness programs that are age and skill-level appropriate as well as how to educate and involve parents in their children’s exercise programs.