Mini vs. Mature Pros: Physical Activity Across the Lifespan

1 12 2010

Ironically two New York Times articles showed up in my inbox today from different colleagues (thanks ED & ALN) about physical activity on different ends of the age spectrum. I find this ying-yang juxtaposition interesting.

pic by Ann Johansson for The New York Times

One is an article by sports journalist and author Mark Hyman titled “Sports Training Has Begun for Babies and Toddlers”. Hyman knows this topic well as he’s written a book called Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How it Harms our Kids, which I think is one of the best books about youth sport. I have many concerns about the products and programs Hyman details.

First, the target market is not the little ones, but their parents who will do anything to help their child get ahead, “keep up with the Joneses” and do right by their children.  I’d even go a step further and argue the target market is White, middle- to upper-class parents who are highly educated. Some call this demographic of parents “helicopter” parents. Someone told me recently that the youngest members of our society are now being called the Super Millennials and they will be more savvy, entitled, pampered and demanding than Millennials (also known as Gen Y, born between 1981-2000). One of the best books I’ve read about the Millennials is Bruce Tulgan’s “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y.” These sports training programs (Gymtrixx, Baby Goes Pro, athleticbaby, The Little Gym) for Super Millennials and their parents are a perfect example how sports can go wrong and why and how youth sports is becoming increasingly professionalized. I mean the little guys in Hyman’s story have on uniforms!

Kotelko picture by Patrik Giardino for The New York Times

The second article is by Bruce Grierson titled “The Incredible Flying Nonagenarian” about Olga Kotelko. Kotelko is a 91 year old Masters Track & Field athlete who started competing at age 77 and in that time holds 23 world records and has won over 600 gold medals. She is considered one of the world’s greatest athletes. WOW! In the NYT piece if you scroll down a bit, there is a video of her talking about competing and some footage of her in action. Amazing! Tangentially, last spring The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport invited Mariah Burton Nelson to give a Distinguished Lecture on Are Women Aging Successfully? New Thinking and Research about Gender and Physical Activity. You can watch the full length video here.

The reason why I put these two articles together is important. As I stated earlier, youth sport is increasingly professionalized and children are being “trained” at higher levels like “mini pros” at younger and younger ages. While a longitudinal study on the effects of early training, sport specialization, and  year round training without rest periods on children and youth has yet to be done, based on data that does exist in pediatric sports medicine, child development, sports psychology and sports sociology I feel I can safely claim that “sports training” for babies is NOT a good idea.

Here are a few reasons why–early sports training can lead to a host of negative and detrimental psychosocial and physical outcomes like burnout, anxiety and eating disorders due to pressure to perform, lack of lifelong enjoyment of physical activity, chronic and overuse injuries, and drop out of sport altogether. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an advocate of kids being active and encouraging free play with children that develops motor and life skills and love of physical activity, but I think there is a fine line between this approach and some of the companies/products Hyman writes about.

Grieger in his piece about Kotelko nails the important link when he writes, “While most younger masters athletes were jocks in college if not before, many competitors in the higher brackets — say, older than age 70 — have come to the game late. They weren’t athletes earlier in life because of the demands of career and their own growing families. Only after their duties cleared could they tend that other fire.”

Olga Kotelko wasn’t enrolled in “baby sports training” but despite a lack of exposure to this ‘opportunity’, she is a professional athlete. More importantly I’d argue, is that she is an exemplary cautionary tale for eager parents bent on early sport specialization. In the big picture of why parents want their children to participate in sport, what is more important: a) nurturing a lifelong ability and love to participate in physical activity, or b) creating a mini pro that might burn out or not be able to compete in college (let alone later in life) due to over use injuries?

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Thoughts on Women, Aging and Physical Activity

22 04 2010

This week The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport put on its Distinguished Lecture Series featuring author and speaker Mariah Burton Nelson (MBN). As the Associate Director of The Tucker Center, I get first hand exposure to the topic and speakers each fall and spring, which is a wonderful benefit of my position. I’d like to share my thoughts from the event and the breakfast panel this morning.

My work is focused mostly on the youth end of the developmental trajectory.  I am certainly aging, but I don’t study aging or aging populations, so this is a topic I know very little about. I learned a great deal and MBN challenged me to think about reclaiming and reframing aging in new ways. We are ALL aging. It is a process of life and something everyone has in common. Most would like to stay suspended in youthful animation and try many things to achieve that goal, but the fact remains we are aging. We can’t control that we are aging, but we can control how we think about aging and we can do certain things that will improve our quality of life while we age.

I laughed when MBN explained that being  “Grown Up” according to the AARP was anyone between age 40-65 years of age.  She challenged the audience to think about the language we use to talk about aging and how to reclaim and reframe aging. I didn’t know that peak cognitive functioning for women occurs in their 60’s! (for men, their 50’s).

When I turned 40, it was very strange that all of a sudden I was thinking of myself as “old”. Why?….40 isn’t old! Where did these thoughts come? I decided to claim being 40 and embrace getting “older”…what was the alternative anyway? So since my epiphany, every time I catch myself thinking about how “old” I am, I replace it with something resembling SNL’s Stuart Smalley affirmations…. “I’m young, healthy, active and I feel great!” In fact optimism and a positive attitude have been shown to improve quality of life as one ages, so perhaps I’m onto something. We will all die and MBN stated that older people (those 80+ years old) are not afraid do die, they are afraid of how they will die. An audience member reiterated that aging is about loss and that life is a series of losses. My take home: We can only control how we react to our losses and how we react in part, will affect our quality of life, including mental and physical health.

Another strategy for maintaining health and quality of life is MOVING!  MBN cited that researchers have found physical inactivity is a better predictor of death than smoking!! The take home message…MOVE! Move in any way you can and in any way you enjoy. Women over 50 did not have the benefit of Title IX (which thank goodness this week Obama has gotten rid of the survey method for proving “interest”) so some do not enjoy physical activity, didn’t have the opportunity to plays sports, or just don’t know how to move in ways that are enjoyable and subsequently their health suffers as they age. Did you know there are National Senior Games? It is never too late to learn how to move or new ways to move when the former ways aren’t feasible perhaps due to injury or impairments. In fact while I was sitting here I got a Facebook message from some women I know who are playing in a 50+ women’s hockey tournament!

Take home messages: move, stay positive, seek social support, and embrace whatever age you are!





Physical Activity, Organized Youth Sport & Youth Obesity

2 10 2009

soda machineSome and colleagues and I are working on research pertaining to what is known (and mostly not known) about the role of youth sports in obesity prevention. Last week Toben Nelson, University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, presented some of our work at the monthly Tucker Table. You can view his PowerPoint and see a small video clip. This work has made me think critically about how youth sports may not be the healthiest places for some children–including the ubiquitous presence of unhealthy snacks which I wrote about in an earlier blog. While physical activity and active living may help prevent childhood obesity, healthy eating is the other half of the equation. To highlight the relationship between physical activity and the presence of unhealthy food, this Village Voice post and picture showing how NYC playgrounds house soda machines says it all (via AN).





Helping Lead the U.S. to Better Health?

29 08 2009

health appleFor those who may not know, here in the U.S. we have a President’s Council for Physical Fitness and Sport. This group according to the government website “is an advisory committee of volunteer citizens who advise the President through the Secretary of Health and Human Services about physical activity, fitness, and sports in America.” Many of my Kinesiology colleagues have served on the PCPFS council and its Science Board. It is an honor to be asked to serve this prestigious group. The PCPFS puts out many informative publications, research digests and other pieces that can be downloaded free on the PCPFS website.

Historically, the Executive Director is someone who is well respected and academically trained in sport science yet understands how to apply and implement research-based best practices to improve the health, nutrition and well being. President Obama has recently named the new Executive Director: Sergio Rojas (for his bio click here and here). No disrespect to Mr. Rojas, but is he qualified? With a BA in Psychology from Loyola, I couldn’t help but think this rings of Chicago-based nepotism.

With the health of US citizens in the forefront of the national debate on health care reform, the alarming incidence of childhood obesity in US children, low rates of physical activity, and the fact that pressure to meet No Child Left Behind standards has basically ensured that physical education is stripped from school curricula despite rising evidence that physical activity increases cognitive functioning and classroom achievement, some of many health issues that face our nation, the PCPFS needs a strong and informed leader. I doubt that Rojas is the guy to help move these issues in the right direction, I hope I’m wrong.

picture from Institute of Health Economics