In the landmark 117-page publication titled Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, (USDHHS 2018), the first sentence reads, “Regular physical activity is one of the most important things people can do to improve their health.” Then, in section 3 on youth fitness, the report highlights that physically active youth have higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, stronger bones and muscles, and lower body fat, as compared with inactive children.
Most interestingly, the report highlights several brain health benefits for physically active school-age children including improved cognitive functions of memory, faster brain processing speed, enhanced executive function (i.e., brain processes that enable one to plan, focus attention and control emotions) and better academic performance.
Fitness professionals continue to reimagine and reinvent their professional careers—largely due to imposed restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is the time to focus on developing new means of professional direction and income, and youth fitness is a worthy consideration.
This would be a great contribution to society as well. For example, it has been shown that consistent exercise during childhood can lead to far-reaching positive effects on adulthood earnings and substantial medical cost savings as adults (Kari et al. 2016; Lee et al. 2017).
Battling Inactivity in Youth
In spite of the well-known health benefits of physical activity, global levels of youth physical inactivity are very high. Data from 1.6 million students ages 11–17 from 146 countries indicates that more than 80% of these youth were insufficiently active (not attaining the recommended 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity daily physical activity) (Guthold et al. 2020).
For boys and girls, Guthold and colleagues highlight that a deficit of physical activity at schools, along with parental attitudes (e.g., no positive support), are frequently cited barriers for adolescents to get involved in fitness-related pursuits. In many households, the parental attention and direction for adolescents is to strive to achieve success in other disciplines, as compared with sports, physical education or active recreation.
Looking at the issue from a global perspective, Guthold et al. note that in nearly all 146 countries analyzed in their research, girls were less active than boys, and the prevalence of female insufficient activity has not improved since 2001. The researchers propose this is particularly apparent in high-income countries including Ireland, Singapore and the United States, which all show an absolute difference in physical activity between boys and girls of more than 13 percentage points. Some of this low physical activity in girls may be explained by societal factors, such as girls being responsible to support domestic chores and family needs around the home.
Guthold et al. submit that changing physical activity behaviors in children, particularly girls, is challenging. The researchers submit that cost-effective social marketing campaigns combined with community-based interventions are the starting points to increase physical activity levels in girls. For both girls and boys, increasing physical activity needs to be addressed by several sectors of society, including stakeholders in schools (making sure physical education is regularly offered), families, sport and recreation providers, urban planners, and community leaders.
Physical Activity Guidelines for Children
The USDHHS 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines’ overarching goal is for children and adolescents ages 6–17 to attain 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. The guidelines specifically recommend the following:
- Aerobic. Most of the 60 minutes or more of exercise should be at a moderate-to-vigorous level (5–6 on a 0–10 rating of perceived exertion scale), and on at least 3 days a week it should be at a vigorous-intensity level (7–8 on a 0–10 RPE scale).
- Muscle strengthening. As part of the 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity, there should be some muscle-strengthening activity on at least 3 days a week. This may include playing on playground equipment, playing tug of war, climbing trees, structured weightlifting or working with resistance bands.
- Bone strengthening. As part of the 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity, there should be some type of bone-strengthening exercise on at least 3 days a week. Playing basketball, tennis or hopscotch, running, and jumping rope are all examples of bone-strengthening activities. As these examples illustrate, bone-strengthening activities can also be muscle strengthening and/or aerobic.
Resistance Training Guidelines for Youth
Diving a little deeper, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently revised its 2008 policy statement on the beneﬁts and risks of resistance training for children and adolescents. In this new position statement, published in 2020, Stricker and colleagues highlight there is a change in the landscape of “strength” among adolescents and children, and they provide a much more detailed, state-of-the art position paper for youth resistance training (see “Key Resistance Training Recommendations for Youth,” below).
The scientists submit that the evidence on physical inactivity, obesity and the decreasing measures of muscular fitness in youth add to the importance of involving all youth in some form of resistance exercise, regardless of whether they are involved in sports. Stricker et al. state that type, amount and frequency of resistance exercise should be determined by the training goals, sport goals and individual child’s resistance training skill competency and accumulated time of formal resistance training (referred to as “training age”).
The AAP position statement continues, explaining that the positive sequence of strength gains in youth leads to improvements in motor skill performance, power, speed and physical literacy (the ability to move with competence and confidence) while also reducing the risk of injury and injury rehabilitation. The AAP position statement clearly denotes, in several places, the importance of qualified fit pros leading the way with successful youth resistance training.
Interestingly, the updated AAP position statement summarizes research showing that participation in a resistance training program has also been shown to increase daily levels of spontaneous activity in school-age boys, which suggests that resistance training may be a good place to start when trying to get inactive kids to be more active overall.
More Notable Youth Fitness Research Findings
The AAP position statement is an incredibly useful updated source of information for fit pros desiring to start, update and/or add youth resistance training to their professional services.
Here are seven important findings from this review from Stricker et al. (2020):
- Methods. Strength gains will occur with different methods of resistance training—including body weight, free weights, resistance bands, kettlebells, medicine balls and child-size machines—after a minimum duration of 8 weeks with a frequency of 2 or 3 times a week.
- Recovery. Children recover more quickly than adults from resistance training fatigue. One minute of rest between sets is recommended for beginners. Two to 3 minutes of rest will be needed as the intensity of training increases.
- Core training. Core training is foundationally important to the program design. It will lead to increased postural control and improved sport-specific skill acquisition.
- Assessment. Study results indicate that 1-RM testing in adolescents and children is safe and worthwhile when established testing protocols are followed by qualiﬁed fit pros.
- Performance. Increases in strength with resistance programs have resulted in performance advances in the vertical jump, counter-movement jumps and sprints.
- Injury prevention. There is less concern for injury from supervised, well-designed and technique-driven resistance training and more concern for injuries that occur because of poor supervision and instruction. Importantly, prolonged training with heavy loads coupled with inadequate rest and recovery between sessions is correlated to illness, overtraining and injuries. Sensible year-round training, designed by qualified fit pros, that varies volume and intensity and provides adequate periods of rest between workouts is highly recommended.
- Safety. The AAP vigorously opposes the use of performance-enhancing substances and strongly endorses efforts to eliminate their use among children and adolescents.
Youth Fitness: An Uplifting Experience
There has been a paradigm shift in youth resistance training. Early research efforts focused on what ill effects can occur if a child lifts weights. The more recent focus has turned toward what ill effects will result if a child does not lift weights. The AAP position paper encourages fit pros to design programs of resistance and aerobic training. The added benefit of combined programs has been shown to favorably lead to positive reductions of total body fat, combatting obesity in youth. Training our children and adolescents is a big win . . . Get on it!
Key Resistance Training Recommendations for Youth
Begin with 1–2 sets of 8–12 repetitions using a low resistance intensity (≤60% of 1-RM).
Progress to 2–4 sets of 6–12 repetitions with a low-to-moderate training intensity (≤80% of 1-RM).
Young athletes can learn phases of lower repetition (<6) and higher intensities (>80% of 1-RM).
Perform all exercises through a full range of motion with proper technique, and vary the workouts for enjoyment.
Work multijoint exercises before single-joint exercises, and work large muscle groups before small muscle groups.
With more complex multijoint exercises, emphasize proper technique to attain optimal motor control development.
Include all muscle groups in the resistance training program design. Use dynamic warmup and cooldown exercises with appropriate stretching techniques.
Source: Stricker et al. 2020.
Guthold, R., et al. 2020. Global trends in insufficient physical activity among adolescents: A pooled analysis of 298 population-based surveys with 1–6 million participants. The Lancet: Child & Adolescent Health, 4, (1), 23–35.
Kari, J.T., et al. 2016. Childhood physical activity and adulthood earnings. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 48 (7), 1340–46.
Lee, B.Y., et al. 2017. Modeling the economic and health impact of increasing children’s physical activity in the United States. Health Affairs (Project Hope), 36 (5), 902–8.
Stricker, P.R., et al. 2020. Resistance training for children and adolescents, Pediatrics, 145 (6), e20201011.
USDHHS (United States Department of Health and Human Services). 2018. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Accessed Feb. 9, 2022: health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf.