I spoke to my new friend Jiang today and she informed me of something truly troubling. She felt horrible because she snatch deadlifted 100kg (220 lbs) today as her maximum instead of her programmed 140kg (308 lbs). Then I spoke to my cousin Drew today about four hours later and he was upset that he couldn’t beat his friend’s team on League of Legends despite having a significant advantage in terms of stats. Let’s get real—both of these children are 14 years old. Is there something I’m missing or is fitness really taking a backseat in younger generations?
Statistics on children’s fitness show that children in the United States spend more than seven hours in front of a screen and only one in three are physically active each day. However, according to the Statista research department in the UK, the business of wellness and fitness is projected to hit $27 billion by 2020.
The Journal of Exercise and Fitness shows Korea’s report card has improved significantly within the past two years regarding physical activity in youth alone. I believe that fitness isn’t declining, it’s increasing. However, it seems to be increasing for some of the wrong reasons.
Social Media Looks Good But Feels Bad
Instagram was instituted in 2010—Facebook in 2004—and peer pressure on aesthetics seemed to increase around this period. Like a double-edged sword, everyone wanted to become a personal trainer and young children started an abnormal fascination with celebrity physiques. Along with peer pressure came cyber-bullying. This led to irrational parental requests for obese children to suddenly become a physique phenom overnight.
This social media influence produced children who are physically able to be much more productive but psychologically have declined. As a result, these children begin to show abnormal relationships with food and exercise. In Cyberbullying, Social Media & Fitness Selfies: An Evolutionary Perspective by Brock DiFonzo, he explains that narcissism, victimization, self-esteem issues, and selfies are on the rise. Based on the values given, this affects females more than males.
The Decline of Socialization
As previously stated, physically active children are becoming almost nonexistent as video games and screentime increases. Social skills are on a rapid decline and result in difficulty for children when it comes to making decisions, exerting self-control, and dealing with more intrinsic feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and depression.
After the age of two, most children are primed to begin to play with peers and develop necessary interpersonal skills. During my upbringing track and field, martial arts, and dancing with church members during events was something very important to my social life. As an only child, and having a streak for being bullied, one might conclude that I had a very boring social life and or poor interpersonal skills.
However, martial arts and a healthy track record (pun intended) were an integral part of my life. I met friends throughout my school years as a result of my participation in sports, and through competition, I learned to improve myself in various ways.
A lack of physical education classes concerns parents, according to the Harvard Press Most public schools do not have a physical education program despite a minimum standard of 225 minutes of activity per week.
On the contrary, at Hunan Vocational College during my stay in Changsha, I noted that Jiang has two training sessions per day lasting two hours each, smoking American collegiate standards and outlasting a week’s worth of physical activity for children her age. Jiang expresses that it’s tough and bitter work, but she knows that it’ll pay off in the end.
In addition to training, she often goes out on Sundays with her friends and is able to interact on a much different level. She says “It’s refreshing to learn something new and enjoy childhood even though my English skills could be better.” She couldn’t imagine what life would be like without training or physical activity at least once a day.
Strong Children Create a Brighter Future
A temporary fix is adding more physical education in schools. However, a more long-term fix is engaging children in a more meaningful way. As a parent, taking your children to the YMCA or going to the gym or park with them proves much more valuable.
Children will then associate normal social life with physical activity. Program costs may be expensive, therefore implementing play dates with a large pool of children is another a solid option.
Volunteer groups such as Seeds in the Middle have year-round programs that teach children soccer and basketball. The United States Karate Center offers a free intro class. There are free summer youth camps across the US and I’m sure there are options that exist in other countries, as well. Fostering physical activity from a young age instills discipline, fun, and produces a more social child.
Training Plans for Children’s Athletics
There is a misnomer regarding training children and stunting growth. In the Journal of Physician and Sportsmedicine, there is gaining popularity of implementing strength training in prepubescent children without concern for damage to the epiphyseal tissue (growth plates) and soft tissue.
By no means does training young children turn them into genetic freaks, instead it sets up a foundation for strength in the long term. In the Journal of Pediatric Rehabilitation, both females and males can benefit equally with minimal to no injury.
There is an obvious need for supervision however, entrusting coaches and starting with basic skills alongside your child to allow them to toughen up when it comes to weight-bearing activities of daily living.
Engaging your children in competitions is a great start but doesn’t necessarily need to be the case, as this can backfire if done improperly. Promote wellness and health, allow your child to struggle with a push-up or two, teach them how to squat, and in the future, they will be stronger adults.
While on a recent training trip to China, I worked with Coach Jianping Ma and Dr. Buitrago at Ma Strength who allowed me to take the video above of one of their young trainees. In China, by comparison to what we do here in the States, they have vocational sports schools, schools dedicated to sports such as weightlifting, where children as young as nine years old are enrolled.
These elite establishments are for hand-picked trainees, but from the age of 12, kids are encouraged to join gyms and athletic centers to train after school. While you can get gym memberships and private training for your kids here, too, in China it is meant to be more affordable and accessible so, there is a general consensus that you have to start at an early age even though there isn’t anywhere near the same hierarchy and diversity of youth leagues and sports as here.
Somewhere in between the Chinese and American models, there is a happy medium that will encourage our kids to build a foundation in fitness. At least we can hope.