As Elle Woods famously said in Legally Blonde, "Exercise gives you endorphins — endorphins make you happy." And she was exactly right, per science. Endorphins are essential for the maintenance of mental health, which is why exercise — even just a walk around the block — is so often suggested as a balm for anxiety and depression. But when can kids work out at the gym?
Today's teens are experiencing mental health challenges in numbers never before recorded. The global pandemic has brought with it a myriad of triggers for anxiety and depression, including isolation, trauma and academic and social stress. Added to the stressors of growing up in an era where mass shootings — especially at schools, war, political tension and other happenings are headline news, it's no wonder we're looking for literally anything to help our kids cope in healthy ways.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC reported that 36% of teens in 2019 experienced "persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness." Since that year, the number has only increased, now skirting the 50% mark.
Over the last two decades, research has found that exercise is key when battling both obesity and mental health issues, no matter your age. "Aerobic exercise, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening and dancing have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression ... by improving self-esteem and cognitive function," reported a 2006 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
School, especially in the elementary and middle grades, keeps kids active through playground recess and physical education classes as well as organized athletics in upper grades. But what happens in the summer, when it's hot outside and the allure of video games, infinite snacking opportunities, a comfy couch and air conditioning are intense.
In early May, Planet Fitness rolled out the High School Summer Pass, allowing any high schooler ages 14 through 19 to work out for free at any of its more than 2,200 locations in the U.S. and Canada through Aug. 31.
But can even younger kids benefit from working out at the gym rather than just engaging in physical activity through play?
Dr. Randon Hall, an orthopedic physician specializing in sports medicine, concussion and fracture management at Phoenix Children's Hospital, says while children's skeletal systems are still developing, all types of exercise — including "formal" strength training — has excellent benefits for both mental and physical health.
"Resistance training has a primary goal of gaining strength, but it also helps develop motor skills, speed and power and develop functional movements applicable to all sports," he says. "It also can help reduce the risk of injury," which is a major concern for kids participating in organized sports or working out at the gym. Dr. Hall also says he likes using strength training as an alternative to either running or team sports that might not be as appealing to some kids, especially in the hot summer months.
Claudia Moya, mom to Sophia, 8, says she and her daughter, "used to go for walks around the neighborhood, but as the summer settled in, the heat was the main reason Sophia requested to go to the gym instead."
"It's nice to spend some time with her," she adds, "and we usually go out for breakfast afterward, which is wonderful quality time together."
Dr. Hall points out, though, that gym equipment is meant for adult-sized bodies, so proper supervision and safe usage is key in keeping kids safe. Instead of weight-lifting machines, he suggests body weight exercises, resistance bands, free weights and medicine balls as entry points for kids to start a gym-based workout program.
Tim Liu, a Stanford Children's Health physical therapist in Palo Alto, Calif., says the "right age" for a child or teen to start going to the gym varies. "If the child shows genuine interest in going to the gym and achieving strength, there is nothing in the research that tells us it's not good for a younger person to [work out] in a gym," he says.
In addition to the benefits Dr. Hall points out, Liu says kids can benefit from resistance training through increased metabolic health, increased cardiovascular fitness, improved bone density (which is specifically beneficial for young females) and reduced chronic disease risk.
Boutique fitness studios, including yoga studios, are loosening up their restrictions on children attending classes as well, as the benefits of yoga, stretching, mindfulness and meditation is well-documented, even for children as young as 3 or 4.
Katie Donzanti, who owns and operates The Peaceful Peacock yoga studio in Orlando, Fla., encourages her 5-year-old to participate in yoga and meditation sessions with her when possible. At her studio, she allows children as young as 8 to participate in class, provided they are "comfortable sitting still and keeping mostly quiet for the whole class," she says. "I always tell parents they are the best judge of when their child is ready to participate."
If you're not sure if your kid is ready, it can also be helpful to find a gym or studio that offers family-friendly exercise classes that are more casual and safe spaces for fidgeting, movement or asking questions during class.
"I think it's really important to expose kids to self-care, movement and proper gym etiquette while modeling mindfulness in a gym or wellness space like a yoga studio," says Donzanti. "Personally, I take my 5-year-old to my gym and she has a prescribed set of activities she is allowed to do and enjoys doing to be a contributing member of that gym community."
Regardless of age, all agree that keeping kids active — no matter how — is essential, especially during the summer months when kids are out of school and are less exposed to organized physical education and athletics.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends three full hours of physical activity per day for kids ages 3 to 5, and 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on most days of the week when they reach 6 and up. But just like with most activities, keeping kids interested means making sure they're having fun.
Liu says, "We want [kids] to be active and engaged in a variety of activities. With younger children, we're likely to see better engagement and participation if these activities are in settings where fun is the primary focus and they are just enjoying the activity."
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