Just as you monitor your child's academic progress and social development, you also need to keep an eye on her fitness level. Along with strength and endurance, flexibility is a key component of fitness. If your child is active in sports and other physical activities -- whether competitive or recreational -- understand how flexibility issues affect her health, athletic performance and risk of injury.
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The American Council on Exercise notes that from about age 6, when children begin sitting regularly at a desk, the hamstrings are forced into a tight, shortened position for many hours a day. As children get older, spending long hours hunched in front of the TV or computer compounds the problem, leading to tightness in the legs, back, neck and shoulders. The Nationwide Children's Hospital website adds that muscles tend to be tight in the pre-teen and early teen years when children experience short periods of rapid growth. During this phase of physical development when bones grow quickly and muscles have not yet adjusted to them, poorer flexibility may become a problem.
Children who are unusually flexible are referred to as hypermobile, or double-jointed. Their joints are exceptionally loose and their limbs move beyond the normal ranges of motion. Children's knees and elbows might extend beyond what is considered straight, or children might be able to bend their thumbs or pinkies in extreme ways. Hypermobility tends to run in families, according to the American College of Rheumatology, and girls tend to exhibit greater joint looseness than boys of the same age. As hypermobile children age and continue to grow, their muscles become stronger and tighter, which generally causes joint mobility to normalize. In some cases, hypermobility and its various symptoms continue into adulthood, according to the Cleveland Clinic website.
If your child is active in sports and other activities, poor flexibility can prevent her from performing at her best and increase her risk of injury, according to the Nationwide Children's Hospital. Her short, tight muscles are more susceptible to strain.
For children who participate in activities that value a high level of flexibility -- including gymnastics, ballet and martial arts -- hypermobility is often considered a plus. However, the condition can lead to a host of unpleasant symptoms, including muscle and joint aches, pain, swelling and cramping. Pain symptoms are more common in the lower extremities, including the thighs and calves, and tends to affect larger joints, including the knees and elbows. Hypermobile children are also prone to sprains, soft tissue injuries, joint dislocations and back pain.
Regular, consistent stretching is key to maintaining or boosting a child's flexibility. Before physical activity, children should warm up with several minutes of general cardio activity, followed by dynamic stretching that involves continuous, repetitive movement. After exercise, children should spend several minutes doing static stretches for the major muscle groups, including the shoulders, quads, hamstrings and calves.
Hypermobile children might require basic strengthening exercises to counteract the effects of their condition. They should avoid behaviors that over-stretch their affected joints, such as sitting cross-legged and standing with locked knees. As a parent, teacher or coach, you should discourage hypermobile children from "cracking" their knuckles and other joints and entertaining friends with stunts that demonstrate their incredible joint mobility.
REFERENCES & RESOURCES
- KidsHealth.org: Kids and Exercise
- American Council on Exercise: What Exercises Can I Do to Help Alleviate Tight Hamstrings?
- Nationwide Children's Hospital: Stretching
- American College of Rheumatology: Hypermobility (Pediatric)
- Cleveland Clinic: Benign Hypermobility Syndrome
- UW Health: Stretching Exercises for Kids
- KidsHealth: Stretching
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Flexibility Exercises for Young Athletes