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Pressing For Kids' Fitness

Once Thought Risky, Weight Training for Kids Is Now Getting a Push

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page HE01

Alexandra Wasser stared straight ahead as she pushed up on a shoulder press at Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg. She focused on keeping her back straight but didn't appear to be straining to lift the weight.

In Laurel, Danielle Roarty applied more enthusiasm to a similar workout. After working out with weights for about a year -- doing biceps curls, lunges, leg-strengthening exercises -- she is convinced the training has sharpened her ice hockey game.

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"I wish I'd started earlier," she said. "I'll definitely keep doing it. I really like it."

Though they appear to approach weight lifting with disparate levels of enthusiasm, Wasser and Roarty have one thing in common: They are both 11.

Wasser's workout was part of a Montgomery County effort to introduce weight training in phys ed classes.

Roarty, who is completing sixth grade at a public school in Prince George's County, joins a half-dozen kids her age after school at a health club in Laurel for a weekly strength and fitness training session.

You might think 11 is a tender age to start lifting weights. Only a generation ago, weight training for children was widely viewed as dangerous and ill-advised. But lately the practice has been quietly gaining support from medical and fitness professionals swayed by new research and increasing concern about kids' increasing inactivity and obesity.

"Most children who adhere to a well-supervised, progressive resistance training program [that may include weight training] can safely increase their strength and improve their athletic performance," said Carla Sottovia, assistant fitness director at the Cooper Fitness Center in Dallas.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has signed on, noting improvements to overall fitness and bone density in kids as young as 6 from weight training and finding no undue safety risks in properly supervised training programs. (According to the authors of an article published last year in the journal The Physician and Sportsmedicine, that means programs with well-trained, attentive instructors who use equipment geared specifically for children and have "realistic expectations." )

The AAP endorses weight training in both already-fit children and those who are overweight or otherwise out of shape. A study presented at the American Heart Association's annual meeting in Orlando last November showed that endothelial function -- an indicator of susceptibility to arterial disease -- improved in obese children and teens who took part in an eight-week weight lifting program. Some studies even suggest weight training in children can help control cholesterol levels.

Pre-adolescents aren't swarming to weight rooms, judging by the accounts of fitness experts and trainers. But weight training for all children under age 18 has grown in the last 15 or so years, according to American Sports Data Inc., a sports research firm in Hartsdale, N.Y. In 2002, about 8.3 million children under 18 trained using free weights, up from 6.3 million in 1987.

True to Form

Back at Ridgeview Middle School, Wasser and three classmates continued lifting weights on a Universal weight machine while Bob Marley played on a boombox and other children milled about. Their faces bore the same range of expressions you'd find in any sixth-grade class: enthusiasm, indifference, boredom, mischief.

Lifting only 10 pounds on the shoulder press, Wasser wasn't particularly challenged. That, said Randy Berger, one of the three teachers in the room, is deliberate.

"We don't want these kids straining or trying to max out on weight," Berger said. "The idea is to teach them proper weight lifting form and give them a little strength boost for whatever sports they're playing."

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