Can Weight Training Save Your Child’s Life? Could Be…

Dear Mr. Dad: My 9-year old son is sports obsessed and quite athletic. He’s involved in one sport or another all year long, and he recently told my wife and me that he wants to start lifting weights. Is it safe for kids that young to do weight training?

A: When I was about your son’s age, there were two things I really wanted to do: lift weights and throw a curve ball. I was told that both activities would do serious, irreparable, long-term damage: that throwing curves would strain my elbow and destroy my joints, and that lifting weights would stunt my growth. Several decades later, conventional wisdom has changed on both fronts. Curve balls, researchers now say, aren’t dangerous—but they aren’t necessarily safe either. More about the curve in a future column. But when it comes to kids pumping iron, there’s been a 180-degree change.

Strength training is not only safe, it’s actually recommended by many medical professionals (with the caveat that it’s done under the watchful eye of someone who can make sure the weights aren’t excessive and that the child maintains proper technique). The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)—which just released a strength-building iPhone/iPad app called IronKids—gave their blessing to resistance training for children as young as 8, as a way to improve their performance and reduce the chance of injury.

The “improve performance” part seems perfectly logical—I can’t think of a sport where being strong isn’t an advantage. But the “reducing injury” part is a little less intuitive. Here’s how it works: 21st-century humans spend a lot more time on our duffs than our ancestors. As a result, when we do jump off the couch, our muscles and tendons may not be able to stand up to the heavy load sports put on them. I can’t think of a single major sport that doesn’t involve at least some sudden stops and starts and direction changes. Speaking from extensive experience, that’s when many of the season- or career-ending injuries happen.

In a recent press release, the AAP estimates that more than 30 million kids and teens in the U.S. play sports. The AAP also cites statistics from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission showing that more than 3.5 million children under 15 are treated in hospitals and clinics because of sports-related injuries, mostly from basketball, football, soccer, and baseball. We’re talking acute injuries like muscle pulls, dislocated joints, and broken bones, as well as “overuse” injuries like tennis elbow and shin splints. Could strength training eliminate all those injuries? No. But it sure could reduce the number and, possibly, the severity of those injuries.

So, yes, it’s not only safe for your son to lift weights (again, with proper supervision), it’s good for him. And by “good for him,” I mean it could save his life in a few years.

Researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute tracked more than a million 16-19-year old males, and found that guys who had poor muscle strength as teenagers had a 20 to 25 percent higher risk of getting sick or dying from heart disease, obesity, or high blood pressure than the strongest teens. Those more buff kids were also 20 to 30 percent less likely to be diagnosed with depression, schizophrenia, other psychiatric disorders, or to kill themselves.

Before your son starts on any kind of weight training regimen, make sure he’s got a coach or trainer who has a lot of experience working with children.