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Is CrossFit safe for kids?

July 22, 2013

CrossFit has become a wildly popular fitness trend among adults over the past few years, and now CrossFit is targeting kids, too. But some parents can’t help but wonder, “Is CrossFit safe for my child?” We sat down with Dr. Davis, sports medicine physician at Arnold Palmer Hospital, to ask her expert opinion on the appropriate types of physical activity for kids, and if CrossFit is safe for their growing bodies.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently announced that it’s safe for kids to start a light weightlifting routine after age 8. Can you explain this decision?

The benefits of strength training for kids are similar to those for adults. Like adults, kids will gain improvements in muscular fitness and bone mineral density by incorporating a light strength-training program into their fitness routine. However, one of the most important benefits of any youth fitness program (including resistance training, in addition to aerobic exercise) is an improved attitude towards lifelong activity, which will keep them motivated into their adult years.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee for Sports Medicine and Fitness, "If children or adolescents undertake a strength-training program, they should begin with low-resistance exercises until proper technique is learned. When 8 to 15 repetitions can be performed, it is reasonable to add additional weight in small increments. Exercises should include all muscle groups, and be performed through the full range of motion at each joint. To achieve gains in strength, workouts need to be at least 20 to 30 minutes long, take place a minimum of two to three times per week, and continue to add weight or repetitions as strength improves. There is no additional benefit to strength training more than four times per week."

Some kids under the age of 8 are enrolling in CrossFit youth programs. What could be the potential risks?

Developmentally, kids younger than 8 years old may not have the motor and cognitive skills, or the attention span, to be able to properly perform all of the exercises in CrossFit. Younger children will benefit more from unorganized outside play (such as recess), or participating in organized team sports (such as soccer or T-ball), that focus more on hand-eye coordination, learning to follow rules, and socialization with other kids.

As a sports medicine physician, what do you feel are the pros and cons of kids participating in CrossFit? Do you have any concerns? Or do the potential benefits outweigh the risks?

The Pros

CrossFit programs that are specifically for children (which looks much different from adult CrossFit) can be a great way to get kids more active by having fun with exercise. The activities are designed for children according to their age and skill level. These programs can also lead to significant improvements in self-esteem, mental discipline and socialization of children who participate. According to the CrossFit website: "The CrossFit Kids program uses the template of randomized, functional exercises, performed at high intensity. Adjustments are made to accommodate the specific needs and requirements of children and teens." These can all be positive benefits for kids wanting to start a new exercise routine.

The Cons

My concerns would pertain to having kids perform activities, or exercises, that they are not ready for. This could include: lifting too much weight for their strength level, participating in an activity like CrossFit more than two or three days a week, or participating in a class that is too long (more than 45-60 minutes per work out). Any of these pitfalls can set kids up for overuse injuries or burnout.

CrossFit classes can be a great adjunct to a kid’s exercise routine, but should not be the only form of fitness they participate in. Just like adults, kids need a well-balanced and fun way to exercise, which includes a variety of different forms of exercise.

What advice would you offer parents who may want to sign their child up for CrossFit? Should they get a physical first? What questions should they ask the gym owner?

Parents should talk with their child’s pediatrician first, before starting any fitness program, like CrossFit. Their child should also complete a general physical before they start.

But most importantly, I would tell them to start any new fitness program slowly, and lean towards underestimating the strength and skill level of young exercisers, to prevent possible injury. The initial focus should be on developing good form and learning the basics of strength training. Secondly, children should be exposed to a variety of exercises and types of resistance. Most kids love to learn new things, so working with medicine balls and resistance tubing in addition to the more traditional free weights and machines is a great idea. It’s also important to ensure that all the major muscle groups are addressed in a balanced, full-body workout. Talk to the gym/CrossFit box owner to make sure that the instructors will allow your child to go at their own pace. Again, these programs should be fun for kids, and they should never be made to feel forced to do an exercise they cannot perform safely, or are uncomfortable with.

Any other thoughts or comments?

R­emember that your goals when exercising with children are simple: be safe, have fun, and help kids learn to love physical activity! This will set them up for a lifetime of healthy living.