Children and Exercise: Safety Guidelines

Safety guidelines for adults also apply to children. However, children can be more prone to injury and may have difficulty controlling body temperature.

Avoiding injury

There are growth phases during childhood when a child’s muscles become relatively tight as bone length increases. This causes variations in children’s physical performance and level of fatigue. Since fatigue makes injury more likely, children should be encouraged to rest when they feel tired.

Correct-sized equipment is essential for any exercise or sport during childhood. Rackets should be child-size (an adult-sized racket places strain on a child’s arm and could lead to wrist, elbow or shoulder injury). A bicycle must fit a child properly to prevent stress to the knee joints; seat and handlebar positions should be checked and adjusted regularly, and a child should always be able to place at least one foot flat on the ground when sitting on a bicycle.

Properly fitting protective equipment is vital. Helmets are essential for activities such as in-line skating, skateboarding, horse-riding, cycling, boxing and American football (which also requires shoulder pads). Elbow and knee protectors should provide adequate cover and shock absorption, and must be worn when in-line skating or skateboarding. Gum shields, which should be fitted by a dentist, must be used for rugby and boxing. Boys should protect their genitals with a box for cricket, hockey, rugby and boxing. Armour is required for Tae Kwon Do and fencing.

Shoes should fit well. If they are too small or rigid they can compress the joints in the mid-foot. Special insoles may be necessary if a child has flat feet or if extra cushioning is required when exercising on hard surfaces.

Exercise injuries can also result from over-training and encouraging too much flexibility from children and teenagers. Young gymnasts are prone to problems such as stretched ligaments, leading to joint problems.

Controlling body temperature

Children, especially those who are overweight, can become overheated during exercise. They should always be dressed appropriately for outdoor sports and should take regular breaks to cool down. Children are also vulnerable to dehydration because they tend to be active for long periods and ignore feelings of thirst.

Parents should encourage children to drink water at regular intervals. Excessive consumption of high-sugar drinks should be discouraged.

Children are also at risk of becoming too cold during exercise such as swimming. Babies and toddlers should not spend more than 15-20 minutes in a pool; older children should keep active and dress promptly. This reduces the risk of chills and cramps.