Children and the Mind-Body Link
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It is something of a modern paradox: Although kids today seem wiser to the ways of the world, their bodies are more unhealthy and deconditioned than ever. There are many demands on children’s attention these days; but, unfortunately, very few of these involve healthy levels of interactive play or connection to nature. The conveniences and “advances” of the modern world seem to have paralyzed kids’ instincts for good old-fashioned play and stress release through movement. Without these basic connections of body and mind to the world around them, how can children possibly grow into conscious, healthy participants in society?
Statistics keep rising for adult obesity, overweight and related diseases. It is widely believed that treating adult obesity begins with prevention; and prevention of adult obesity begins in childhood. It’s disturbing to observe that the high-fructose apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Consider the following:
- Genetic and hormonal causes of obesity are rare. Among children who are obese at 6 years of age, the probability that obesity will persist exceeds 50%; 70%-80% of adolescents who are obese will remain so as adults (Moran 1999).
- Based on an extrapolation of 17 years of National Health Interview Study data and U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 1 in 3 U.S. children born in 2000 has a lifetime risk of developing diabetes. "The odds are worse for black and Hispanic children: nearly half of them are likely to develop the disease," said K.M. Venkat Narayan, MD, chief diabetes epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at the American Diabetes Association’s annual meeting in June 2003.
- The increasing number of obese children and youth throughout the U.S. has led policymakers to rank obesity as a critical health threat. Since the 1970s, obesity rates have more than doubled in preschool children aged 2-5 years and adolescents aged 12-19 years, and more than tripled in children aged 6-11 years (Institute of Medicine 2004).
- Nine million American children are at increased risk of social marginalization as well as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and myriad other morbidities due to overweight (Lobstein, Baur & Uauy 2004). Despite unrelenting publicity and substantial public health efforts to combat childhood obesity, 0.5% of American kids are added to these sad statistics every year.
- While most children spend at least 180 days in school each year, only 8% of elementary schools, 6.4% of middle schools and 5.8% of high schools provide daily physical education (Institute of Medicine 2004).
What can fitness professionals with mind-body specialization skills do to help kids make the right connections? As a starting point, some very encouraging research is emerging about the links between mind-body practice and stress reduction, on the one hand, and overweight, obesity and related disease systems, on the other. Some of this research is even specific to children. Staying in tune with such studies through the Mind-Body section in IDEA Fitness Journal is a great way to start building a library of information you can use when you embark on creating a program for kids. Following are a few samples of the information researchers are producing.
Meditation, Blood Pressure and Behavior. Kids look up to adults and, in some ways, want to be like them. Adult disease onset in childhood was never supposed to be part of the deal, however. Youth inactivity and poor diet have led to increases in weight gain, hypertension, high cholesterol levels and diabetes. Part of the challenge in treating these formerly adult-type diseases in juveniles is that putting kids on prescriptive medications poses risks. Scientists continue to search for drug-free ways to improve children's health.
A recent study found that simple breathing meditation lowered blood pressure (BP) and heart rate in a group of children with normal BP levels (Barnes et al. 2004). The children who practiced meditation exhibited greater decreases in BP than those who participated in health education. The meditation group had significant decreases in BP and heart rate, compared to no change or slight increases in the health education group. This study suggests that meditation may be a valuable technique for improving children's health. The technique is easy for kids to learn, costs virtually nothing and can be effectively led by teachers in the classroom. Moreover, other studies have shown that school-based meditation improves classroom conduct (Archer 2004c).
Yoga May Help Kids With ADHD. The regular practice of yoga is known for helping adults achieve a sense of relaxation and inner peace. A recent study suggests that yoga may also benefit children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
According to research published in the Journal of Attention Disorders (Jensen & Kenny 2004), boys diagnosed with ADHD and stabilized with medication reduced their ADHD symptoms and showed improvement in attention and behavior when they practiced yoga regularly. This study suggests that yoga may be a useful complementary activity for children who already take medication to manage their ADHD. The researchers called for larger studies on yoga’s potential benefits for these children (Archer 2004a).
Tai Chi Practice Has Multiple Therapeutic Benefits. A growing body of knowledge supports the health benefits of regular tai chi practice (Archer 2004b). Evidence from a comprehensive review of more than 200 studies confirms the therapeutic value of tai chi practice for improving quality of life, pain management and physical function (including activity tolerance and cardiovascular function); reducing the risk of falls; enhancing immune response; and increasing flexibility, strength, balance and kinesthetic awareness (Klein & Adams 2004).
The “Get Fit America for Kids” repertoire has the potential to teach multidimensional mind-body aspects of fitness and wellness–core concepts that I believe can instill confidence, help reverse behavioral challenges and open a new and creative fitness world for kids. A list of fun moves, concepts and teaching tips follows. Put your own creative spin on the program!
These exercises, postures and poses are yoga- and tai chi/chi kung-inspired, with a few fun adaptations added. To address the “touch” factor, there are some partnered trust-building exercises and stretches that work wonders. Many children say the partnered work is their favorite part.
1. Feeling the Chi. When working with kids, try to engage them intellectually. Ask them questions to gauge “where they are” in their heads. Talking about nature and the movement of animals can be revealing. Children have a lot to say about nature; it can be both hilarious and inspiring to hear their observations. For example, sometimes I open by leading children through the following dialog:
“Does a cat move slowly or quickly when stalking a bug?”
“Slowly,” they respond.
“Really?” I say, “Why would a cat move slowly?”
They answer, “So he doesn’t scare the bug away.”
“That’s right, and once the cat is close enough, he can move quickly, yes?”
“Yes!” they respond.
I then point out that the cat is aware that the bug has “quick” chi, but is also aware of his own feline “slow” and “last-second-quick” energy.
“So, is it good sometimes to focus and move slowly to get closer to your goal?” I ask.
“Yes,” they respond, and chi lesson #1 is complete.
Children seem to be very interested in chi; you can keep the conversation going by asking them several questions: “What is chi?" I ask them, more than once, as if I have forgotten. By the third or fourth time they scream enthusiastically, "Energy!!!"
Then I ask them questions like these:
“Do dogs have chi?” Yes.
“Do frogs have chi?” Yes.
“Do bugs have chi?” Yes.
“Does cheese have chi?” Yes.
“What about Swiss cheese? With the holes in it?” Pause . . . Yes.
“Do your teachers have chi?” Usually a slight pause, a giggle, then a resounding, Yes!
"Do rocks have chi?" Slight pause, and a hesitant Yes. This opens the door to talk about the formation of land, lava flow, volcanoes, movement into stillness and other insights.
"Do you have chi?" By this time there is a loud chorus of Yes!
Then I ask them to feel the chi of the child sitting next to them. This is done by holding the palms out in front, mirroring another person’s palms and feeling the heat/chi/energy without touching. Children always feel it and understand the concept immediately through this opening exercise.
2. Tree in the Breeze. This move is a breakthrough on all fronts. It is not a mysterious ancient move, but one I created that was inspired by tai chi principles and philosophy. I ask, "Who likes trees?" All hands go up. "Who climbs trees?" All hands go up again, followed by unsolicited stories of tree-climbing adventures. After a healthy amount of listening, I have the kids stand up with me, and I tell them to raise their arms in the air to become trees.
Then I cue: “Pretend your feet are the roots, grounded and centered, so they’re strong; your trunk, or torso, is the trunk of your tree; your arms are the branches; and your fingers are the leaves. When the wind blows, does the tree stiffen up and say, ÔÇÿNo! I am not going to move’?”
"No!" the kids answer.
"That is correct! When the wind blows, the tree moves with it, right?"
"Right," they agree.
"So what happens if a tree is rigid and stiff?"
Little voices answer, "It breaks."
After the dialog, I ask the children to keep their feet planted and pretend the wind is blowing. We all move together. The only "rule" is that they keep their feet planted, like a tree. I encourage them to move all over, still rooted in one spot, while we pretend the wind force grows very strong and then becomes a gentle breeze.
With older children, you can take the lesson a step further and talk about the martial-arts aspect of maintaining your center in all situations. Explain that the only way to do this is to deflect, and not to stiffen up. A martial artist who stiffens up trying to anticipate the move of his sparring partner will easily be thrown off balance. In tai chi there is a 70-30 weight distribution; the lesson is to not give your power away or be thrown off balance by depleting yourself or succumbing to energy that pulls you off center, drains you, is bad for you or diminishes your self-esteem in any way.
3. Monkey Bear. This is another chi move I created; it helps people let go of contrived arm movements during transitions. With feet apart in a wide horse stance, arms relaxed at your sides, focus your mind into your center (chi storage is just below the navel at a point called the tantien, or Dan Tien). Sitting comfortably into your leg base and initiating the movement from your core, let your arms swing effortlessly like a pendulum back and forth in front of your body up to shoulder level. The goal is to use the power of your leg base and your core without effort, letting your arms swing freely with no shoulder tension.
I encourage the kids to make monkey noises (which can be deafeningly loud), and then I have them growl like bears. At this point I often turn around, raise my arms and plié menacingly into the crowd to scare them a little (which they love)!
4. Flying Wild Goose. Bring on the birds! This is a traditional chi kung movement that mimics the slow-motion flapping of wings. Begin with your feet parallel and arms at your sides in a relaxed, bent-knee martial-arts horse stance. Fueled by a deep inhalation from your core, raise your arms (wings), leading with the backs of the elbows, up to shoulder level in a slow-motion wing flap. Lower the arms slowly as you exhale fully. Allow your knees to bend as you exhale, sitting down into your horse stance as the arms come down. The idea is to open up to the path of least resistance through your arms and entire body, so that openness and warmth are conveyed through the palms of the hands as you exhale and lower the arms.
With children, I do this a few times as I explain it and they mimic it. Then I cue everyone to begin “flying” in “slow motion.” I repeat the words out loud over and over as my “wings” slowly flap: “S-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n.” After doing this for a while, I change gears suddenly and exclaim, “Fast!" I then lead the group in rapid wing flaps as we all jump around like a bunch of wild geese. Kids usually go nuts at this point–screaming, laughing, jumping and flapping. Let them get really exhausted, then go back into s-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n. Alternate back and forth for an excellent and fun interval training exercise.
5. Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg. Begin with feet parallel in horse stance, arms at sides and knees bent. Shift your weight slowly to the right and eventually into the right leg only. As you shift, lift the left foot off the ground, bend the left knee and place the left foot near the right knee. Bend the left arm at the elbow, and extend the right arm down the right side in alignment with right leg. Breathe fully, keeping the hands open for chi flow. Once settled into the right leg, begin the same journey to the left side, feeling both feet on the ground before moving into the left-leg position. It is important to feel the downward aspect of the energy, as this is strengthening and helps bring full-body balance. Emphasize grounding through the base leg, breathing fully and waiting for the balance to emerge through quiet repetition. People who don't breathe fully and are stiff or rigid have a difficult time with this posture. To demonstrate this for children, I often mimic a stiff, rigid rooster that can't balance–and has an oddly tense and stressful sounding "cock-a-doodle-doo."
This traditional tai chi posture teaches what I call "micro-connections," which lay a great blueprint for balance, not only at points A and B, but along every point in between. You can present it with this lesson: It is not just the destination that counts, but the way you get there.
6. Snake Creeps Down. This traditional Yang-style tai chi posture is a fun challenge for children. I warm them up with lunges, pliés and a forward bend or two. The goal is to shift about 70% of your weight into the creeping-down leg. The back hand forms a bird's beak (four fingers to the thumb), and the joints should remain fluid, never locked; the lengthened leg remains slightly bent. I explain to kids that this is because a snake must always be ready to rise or slither away at any given moment. Emphasize that there is power in fluidity and weakness in stiffness. A snake is powerful because it can move quietly and quickly.
7. Mountain Pose. Stand strong with feet apart. Stretch your fingertips toward the ground and the crown of your head toward the sky. Cue the group to breathe fully, feeling the strength of a strong, solid mountain; then vary the arms. This pose presents an opportunity to teach about mountains. Cue the children to bring their feet together and reach their arms to the sky to become Mount Everest, the tallest mountain. Then cue them to spread their legs and lower their arms to represent medium mountains and smaller hills. Next feel free to have them invert their arms, squat down and become valleys, showing the balance of nature in the movements.
8. Peace Warrior. This is your chance to redefine the word warrior for children by establishing the honor of a strong, nonviolent warrior of either gender. I usually show children Warrior poses 1, 2 and 3. For Warrior 1, do a wide lunge stance, arms up by the ears and torso vertical above the hips, facing toward the lunging leg. In Warrior 2, maintain the same lunge, with arms open horizontally, parallel to the ground, torso turned to the front, and head turned to the side looking down the arm toward the lunged leg. For Warrior 3, the most advanced, balance on one leg with arms forward, parallel to each other and up by the ears (or thrusting backward). Hips are squared as much as possible to the ground, torso is bent over the base leg and the opposite leg is off the ground, lengthened back directly behind you. The children will have fun trying these poses, and you will see many variations.
9. Tree Pose. Kids love this pose. Feel free to play, but keep the base leg strong and encourage participants to understand where to place the other foot. Also cue them to breathe as they balance. This is a great pose to showcase quiet focus and teach children how to keep their eyes on one point. A child who is noisy and unfocused will not be able to hold the pose properly. I always point out the students who are quietly focused, and they inspire the other kids to rein themselves in. For fun, try different trees, such as palm, sturdy oak and weeping willow (an all-time favorite because I bend from the waist a bit, wither my arms and pretend to sob and cry uncontrollably–and then of course, emerge as a happy willow).
10. Reverse Table. Starting on the floor from a seated position with feet grounded and hands below the shoulders, lift the hips to form a “tabletop” with your torso front. Sometimes I cue the group to drop their hips a bit and lift one leg, switch legs, drop down, or narrow the feet width or arm width. These options let them explore their strength and balance. Once you lower the hips a bit (while still not touching the ground), you can all move around like crabs, raise an arm up to pinch, etc.
11. Diamond/Butterfly. This is a great stretch for the adductors and back. Cue the children to sit tall, with the soles of their feet together. Have them focus their eyes down at about 45-degrees for 30-60 seconds. From there, cue them to round the chin forward toward the chest (head toward the feet), breathe deeply and slowly roll up to a vertical position one vertebra at a time. At the end, I have them lightly flap their wings (legs) like a butterfly.
12. Stretching. While the kids are still on the floor, I like to introduce stretching exercises. This is yet another opportunity to bond with the group, teach them about muscles and get close together. After a full-body floor stretch (which gives you the opportunity to talk about muscles, stretching and strength), we stand up, find a buddy and perform partnered exercises. For example, try the Standing Counterbalance Stretch: Facing your partner, clasp at the wrists and “sit” back as if in a chair, lengthening your arms and stretching your back. This is a real trust-builder and teaches children how to work together.
Before I show this stretch, I ask: "How many of your parents say 'Oh, my aching back’?" Most of them raise their hands, so I engage everyone with an exciting assignment: “Pay close attention so you can teach this to your parents to help them get rid of their sore backs.” Kids really enjoy this stretch. There are always a few who fall down dramatically, but as with Tree Pose, I point out the ones who are quietly enjoying the stretch. I try to bring home the point that if you want to set goals and achieve, you must learn to focus and trust. I tell them, "If you let go of your partner, you are letting go of yourself.” Children really understand these concepts by the end of the 45-minute class.
I often close by standing with the group in a circle, holding hands, legs apart. We lunge to the left and right and do centered pliés, forward bends, arm lifts to the sky, back arches, one-legged stands, etc.
There are so many wonderful ways to engage and teach kids. I invite you to open up your creative doors. If you have fun, they will too.
Sidebar: Yin-Yang and Chi
The Taoist principle of yin-yang balance is very applicable to the already stressed lives of today’s children. In a mind-body program for kids, as in any children’s exercise program, moving slow has to give way to moving fast. When you teach youngsters, always bring in fast and noisy activities for balance. The lesson for children is a grand one for lifelong application, but it is illustrated elegantly through movement: There is power in the quiet within you. A great martial artist possesses awareness of the “chi” inside her and also of the energy around her.
You can take this lesson on chi and balance a step further to enlighten kids about the importance of having happy, healthy chi within themselves. Try to impart to children the value of surrounding themselves with good energy and friendships. Good energy includes the way they think about themselves and the way they speak about, and to, others. I have talked with children about what happens when they speak badly about others–how negative chi is created–and how important it is to be kind to those around them. Emphasize being happy in the moment, and being aware of when they should remove themselves from a situation that feels unhealthy or wrong inside (drugs, potential fights, name calling, suspicious strangers, etc.). In general, kids are very open to the laws of attraction.
Sidebar: Starting a Kids’ Mind-Body Program
When I created the “Get Fit America for Kids” program, I wondered, “What if kids grew up with the physical, mental, spiritual and philosophical principles of yoga and tai chi as standards in their lives?” It was an inspiring basis for formulating a program to guide children!
As fitness professionals, we can teach challenging exercise and creative play. We can foster the development of confident, healthy, well-balanced, mentally focused children, who not only are less stressed but more alert, less likely to have behavioral problems and more likely to be healthier, happier and more productive human beings.
In 2000, my first tai chi school assembly was full of symbolism and surprises. I had been hoping the kids would like it, but I was ready to revert to plan B (cardio, circuit training, jumping around). Plan B is not a bad plan, just not the vision I had in my heart and head. Along the way, adults and faculty had unintentionally discouraged me by wishing me luck with “getting the kids to slow down and focus.” I had my doubts but held my vision of the children getting excited over something new.
While the assembly wasn’t perfect (nothing is), the kids loved tai chi. I believe it was largely due to the imaging associated with the moves: snakes, monkeys, cranes, clouds and horses. These all are things kids see in movies and want to connect with but aren’t necessarily in touch with because of our often-detached way of living. The children seemed to connect easily with moving like a snake, a cat or the clouds. When I added yoga into the mix, they started to enjoy the challenge of balancing their bodies, realizing that the only way to do so was to be quiet.
Archer, S. 2004a. Yoga may help kids with ADHD. IDEA Fitness Journal, 2 (2), 88.
Archer, S. 2004b. Tai chi practice has multiple therapeutic benefits. IDEA Fitness Journal, 2 (2), 89.
Archer, S. 2004c. Meditation may help kids lower BP and improve behavior. IDEA Fitness Journal, 2 (3), 91.
Barnes, V.A. et al. 2004. Impact of meditation on resting and ambulatory blood pressure and heart rate in youth. Psychosomatic Medicine, 66 909-14.
Institute of Medicine. 2004. Schools can play a role in preventing childhood obesity; and Communities can play a role in preventing childhood obesity. Fact sheets drawn from Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance. www.iom.edu; retrieved December 1, 2004.
Jensen, P.S., & Kenny, D.T. 2004. The effects of yoga on the attention and behavior of boys with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Journal of Attention Disorders, 7 (4), 205-16.
Klein, P.J., & Adams. W.P 2004. Comprehensive therapeutic benefits of taiji: A critical review. American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 83 (September), 735-45.
Lobstein, T., Baur, L., & Uauy, R. 2004. Obesity in children and young people: A crisis in public health. Obesity Reviews, 5 (1, Suppl.), 4-85.
Moran, R. 1999. Evaluation and treatment of childhood obesity. American Family Physician, 59 (4), 861-77.
IDEA author and presenter Scott Cole continues to come out to play with his Get Fit America for Kids program (www.getfitamerica.us). He was featured throughout 2004 on ABC's The View, working with overweight kids in the New York area. Scott is available for school assemblies nationwide and offers instructor training for the Get Fit America for Kids program. In 2005, you can see Scott helping teens and adults get healthy on the Food Network's new show Take It Off. To contact him, visit www.scottcole.com.
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