You may have clicked on this article out of curiosity. Strength and conditioning for pre-schoolers? Really? That sounds dangerous and inappropriate for kids.
I’m a personal trainer by trade. Most people have lots of reservations about exercise and working with a trainer. Many people think we are all drill sergeants that force horrible lung-burning exercises onto you until you are soaked in sweat and tears. That certainly is true for some, but not most of us. A proper strength and conditioning program isn’t just about high-intensity cardio or heavy weightlifting. The most important aspects of personal training are developing things like balance, functional strength, coordination, corrective exercises, and proper mobility and stability to joints. Exercise shouldn’t be about looking good for beach season. It’s about improving your long-term health. And for even the youngest among us, exercise is appropriate.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that children aged 3-5 get 60-180 minutes of physical activity daily to promote healthy growth and habits that should carry on later in life. Based on this recommendation, researchers in Germany recently looked to see how similar-aged children respond to formal exercise and if that can further positively impact their health.
German researchers conducted a study at three different schools on children aged 4-6. They were prescribed a ten-week program that consisted of 30 minutes of exercise three times per week. Long jump, single leg balance time, handgrip strength, hopping coordination, and attention spans were measured before and after the 10-week regimen.
Simple exercises commonly used in play were used. Exercises like jumps, ankle hops, partner squats, lunges, animal crawling, and other bodyweight movements. No heavy barbell lifting. No burpees, mountain climbers, or bike sprints. No intense instruction was needed. Kids are already familiar with these movements.
What they found was very encouraging. The children were able to improve their jump performance. Jumping ability is a measurement of power. So we can conclude the program improves power, which translates to better speed, agility, and jumping abilities. This, of course, can make for better athletes now and in the long run.
Best of all, attention spans improved as well. Better attention spans improve performance in school. The teachers also reported improvements in psychosocial behavior among the children at all three schools in the experiment.
In other words, these children became better versions of themselves with just 90 minutes of exercise per week over the course of a few months. The physical benefits are secondary. Young children have very sensitive levels of neuroplasticity, meaning they absorb and use information rapidly. Teaching them these movement skills and behaviors at early ages will positively affect the rest of their lives.
This is the first experiment of its kind among this demographic. Hopefully, this will lead to more research being conducted at this critical stage of life. Much of a child’s personality is permanently fixated around the age of five. Fostering any intervention that helps positively shape their psychosocial and motor control behaviors can be immeasurably important for shaping their long-term futures.
Exercise at School
With all the attention surrounding mental health in modern culture, group exercise at a young age may prove to be a most powerful tool to combat mental health issues. This study alone should advocate for a well-designed exercise curriculum in every pre and elementary school. We will develop better students, better athletes, nicer, more sociable, and more productive children.
Exercise at Home
The home should also be a place where physical activity is encouraged. If 60-180 minutes per day is optimal for growth, the bulk of physical activity should be performed after school. Play with siblings or neighborhood friends is highly encouraged as well.
What Exercises and How Much?
The important thing to remember is that we are trying to build healthy kids, not Olympic athletes. The exercise should be somewhat vigorous but never to the point of not being fun. The workouts were limited to 30 minutes long, with slow warmups and a five-minute cooldown. Jumping, balancing, lunging, squatting, animal crawls, and any other play-like movements are appropriate. No weights or any type of equipment is needed.
Make it fun. Make it intentional. Don’t count reps or make it a competition. Spend 1-3 or so minutes on each exercise for 3-5 exercises. There’s no exact science. Just don’t exhaust them. Make it short, simple, and stimulating for the kids. Do this at school, encourage it at home, and develop a healthier generation.
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