In an ideal world, children would not need a structured exercise programme. They run, jump, skip, stretch and bend as part of everyday play. This would be all they need. Unfortunately, our modern sedentary lifestyle is not just affecting adults but has an effect on children too.
As the child gets older, they spend an increased time at a desk in school, then can come home to watch TV, play computer games and get lost in smart phones. In physiotherapy, we see children complaining of back pain at a younger and younger age.
Children can get involved in individual sports which can be great for their fitness, but as with adults we need to be aware that a repetitive sport should be balanced with a good mixed training programme to help a child redress any muscle imbalances or tight joints which may build up. For example, swimmers will have a demanding training programme which sees them doing pool sessions nearly every day. As a result of this busy schedule, they will spend most of the rest of their day sitting at school and in the car being transported to and from training sessions. They will be pretty tired in the evenings after all the training and probably spend more time sitting. A competitive swimmer will spend very little time up on their feet, standing or walking and as a result can have poor balance.
A Pilates programme for these children, arranged around their training schedule, can not only reduce injury rates by rebalancing muscles, ensuring all joints are mobile and improving balance; but can also help to improve performance by teaching improved body awareness and creating a more powerful core which supports all the moving limbs when swimming.
There are also plenty of children who for many reasons are disengaged from Physical Education at school, and see sport as something for ‘other people’ to do. They maybe do not come from an active or traditionally sporty family and do not see exercise as a normal thing to do; they may lack confidence in their physical abilities or be embarrassed to do physical activities in front of their peers. They may stop taking PE as soon as they can and may develop the problems associated with sedentary lifestyle.
This group can respond very well to a low impact, non-contact activity such as Pilates. It does not necessarily have the same associations as traditional sports (fear of getting changed in front of peers, contact sports, having to demonstrate a level of skill as part of a team) which may put these children off. It’s much more about personal gain and achievement, working at their own level, and hopefully everyone else is absorbed in their own experience of the exercise. These children can find that Pilates boosts confidence, self-esteem and body awareness. From this, they hopefully build the confidence to engage in other activities too.
A Pilates class for children will look quite different to the class set up you are used to, and will probably be much noisier! It needs to be fun and will probably move a lot quicker to keep the children engaged. In an adults class I will often go into quite a lot of detail about the anatomy of the area we are working on to help increase awareness. In contrast in a children’s class there will be much less technical instruction from the teacher and cues to improve body awareness will be kept simple.
To keep the class fun, we’ll often take inspiration from yoga and other exercise forms and do a themed class, for example an animal theme in which the children will get to be a cobra, cat, dog and elephant. Depending on their age, the children will start making animal noises to go with the exercise! They can even be set a challenge, for example ‘what do you think a monkey exercise would be?’ It’s always a challenge to the teacher to rename exercises, or come up with new ones, but really rewarding to see the children engage with the topic.
If a child comes to physiotherapy with an injury, the challenge is again to make their rehab programme interesting, whilst delivering the specific exercises required. Using equipment can help, like including a resistance band, or even a toy already owned by the child. If other family members can be involved this can boost motivation, usually it will benefit the other family member to be working on the same thing too!
Remember that children learn by imitation – demonstrate a healthy active lifestyle to your babies and children and they will want to get involved. Anecdotally, we see lots of babies rolling over for the first time in our postnatal classes, they watch their mums and decide to get involved – it looks like fun!