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Spring youth sports don't help fitness

Published March 15. 2014 09:00AM

Three years and one week ago, I ended a column by writing that if you had a teenaged softball-playing daughter, she was "just another out-of-shape kid . . . who knows what to do with a ball and a glove."

I did so not to offend, but to hammer home the main point to the article: that participating in organized sports doesn't guarantee physical fitness. In fact, a study published in the April 2011 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that three out of every four children who participate in the major organized spring sports don't get the suggested amount of exercise needed to be in shape. The worst offender just happened to be softball.

San Diego State University researchers found that while only 48 of the 200 baseball, softball, and soccer players between the ages of 11 and 14 who wore sensors to measure exertion got the 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise a day at practice that national health guidelines suggest, fewer than 2 percent of girl softball players did so.

At that time, a number of parents had expressed concern to me about the extra weight their sport-playing sons and daughters were carrying. Since this study showed that participating in youth sports is a less-than-effective way to battle the burgeoning childhood obesity problem, presenting the results back then made sense.

I'm not exactly the strongest supporter of organized youth sports and the numbers somewhat explained my prejudice.

This column, however, is not exactly a follow-up to the aforementioned article. There are not new studies to cite that organized sports fails to keep kids physically fit.

But I believe you'll see a correlation in the columns.

The genesis of this one comes from an article first printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch titled, "Old-school P.E. might be what youth need."

In it, Nancy Cambria explains the potential problems of children getting too involved too early in competitive sports, especially a single one, that the "limited regimen of movements" not only hinders long-term athletic development but also leads to overuse injuries.

In the article, Larry Meaders, a former national high school strength and conditioning coach with the National Association of Strength and Fitness who now runs a conditioning program for the Burnsville, Minn. school district, says, "I have 11th- and 12th-graders 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds that have the same absolute movement skill deficiencies as 6-year-olds do."

To make sense of what Meaders means, I thought back to how my niece and nephew ran as if they were ankle deep in mud as 6-year-olds. The effort was certainly there; the speed was certainly not.

Their arms swayed sideways and didn't generate forward force, so that movement didn't help produce speed. Their legs went forward, but without much knee lift, so they didn't stride as much as shuffle.

My brother and I ran in a similar fashion at the same age I am sure, but we did something else at that time and until we were 11 or 12: played outside with other kids most days after school and just about every single day in the summer. If you're close to my age, you probably did the same.

Think about those seemingly worthless games we developed, but more importantly think about what else was developing by playing them.

About how you were unknowingly engaging your quick-twitch muscle fibers every time you played a spirited game of tag or what my buddies called "Protect the Flag," a game where you pushed everyone down the hill and tried to stay at the top.

About how much lateral movement was required to play dodgeball or what my gang called "Four Square," a game you stood in one of the four chalk-drawn squares and had to bat the slapped kickball out of your square and into another.

About how much balance you needed playing chicken on bikes or when you tried to outdo each other on the jungle gym.

And my group used to do that stuff only after we got sick of playing whatever sport was in season. Talk about cross-training.

What's more likely to happen today is what my 12-year-old niece is doing: playing softball in the spring, early summer, and fall but only when her team has practice or her dad takes her to the local batting cage. As far as other exercise, she does little else.

Her hitting and fielding have improved dramatically since she got serious about the softball a year or so ago, but guess what? She still runs as if she's ankle deep in mud.

And she weighs more than she should.

Another potential problem for her if she continues down the solely-softball path is the increased likelihood of injury.

Cambria reports that the incidence of sports injuries in those 14 and under is increasing, and 3.5 million kids were treated last year. More than half of those injuries were caused by overuse, what often happens when young underdeveloped bodies engage in one sport and one sport only year-round.

While I know we will never go back to a time when kids gather regularly to play after school and unknowingly get in a great workout, parents need to recognize the problems this change creates.

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