One of the most important things parents can give to their children is a physical education or involvement in organized sports activity. Physical education has slipped in priority over the last few years, especially in our public schools. Some schools don't even have recess anymore. They're producing children that can (sometimes) pass standardized tests at the academic level, but who are obese, diabetic, predisposed to heart disease and likely to live a relatively short life with high medical costs and lots of pain and suffering to boot. But what good is an education program that educates children on academics if those students won't live a productive, healthy life using their academic skills?
That's why I think physical education needs to be put back into our public schools as a top priority. Ten minutes of recess a day is not enough. Beyond recess, parents would do well to get their kids involved in additional physical education programs, like after-school programs or organized sports -- anything that involves moving the body, whether it's running track, playing soccer, playing basketball, practicing gymnastics... you name it. These are all excellent for children.
Healthy body, healthy mind
Why are these activities so beneficial? They not only physically help the child's body be healthier in terms of immune system function, circulation, strength, flexibility and hand/eye coordination, they also greatly enhance the child's self-image. Participation in sports
can dramatically boost children's self-esteem.
When I was in grade school, we had something called the Presidential Physical Fitness Program. As I understand it, that program no longer exists, but it was an excellent program. It tested each grade school child in a few basic areas, such as doing pull-ups, situps and running, and it awarded them badges for various levels of physical achievement. One of the program's mottos, as I remember from the badges I earned, was: "A sound body, a sound mind."
That program was right on the mark. Being physically fit is more than just physical. It also delivers benefits to your mind. It alters your personality in a positive way. It changes a person for the better, and being involved in an organized social sport gives a child social skills, teamwork skills and many other socially-oriented skills that will be a huge benefit to that child as he or she progress into adulthood.
Amazingly, I've heard some parents come up with the most unbelievable excuses for not involving their children in physical activities or organized sports programs. One parent told me she didn't want her daughter, a seventh-grader, to play soccer because she thought all women who played soccer end up with bulky-looking legs, and she didn't want her daughter to have ugly, bulky legs. Unbelievable, huh?
This is a case where a parent, who greatly misunderstands what physical fitness does to the physical beauty of a person, has made a decision that will impair her child's development in an important way. That child wants to play soccer, but the parent is more worried about the cosmetic appeal of her daughter's legs than in actually giving her daughter an opportunity to be physically fit and participate in a sport that she enjoys. That kind of ignorance plays out millions of times a day across our country and around the world, as parents who lack good information on the benefits of sports and physical fitness make poor decisions about the activities of their children. These poor parenting decisions negatively impact the potential of those children for the rest of their lives.
Afraid to risk losing at a sport
Other parents say they don't want their children participating in sports where there are losers. They want everyone to be a winner, and they're afraid to have their child ever lose a game, miss an award or appear as a loser. This attitude is based on some kind of bizarre overprotection syndrome, I suppose. In the real world, there are winners and losers. There are consequences for doing a poor job, whether it's in sports, business, real estate, personal relationships or anything else that you choose to pursue.
It's essential that children learn early on that the investment and dedication they put into some effort will pay off in terms of winning versus losing, or in terms of being awarded the gold medal instead of the bronze medal.
Interestingly, not everybody has to be a winner to gain benefits from physical activity. In fact, all that's required is participation. You could come in last place on the track team every single time and yet still be way ahead of the other children who don't exercise at all. You could be the worst free-throw shooter in basketball and still derive physical, mental and nervous system benefits from playing that sport.
Exercises boosts intelligence and mood
Along those lines, a lot of parents don't realize that children who participate in physical activity have healthier brains and nervous systems. They are far less likely to ever be diagnosed with depression, Attention Deficit Disorder or any other so-called mental disorder. Children who participate in sports are all around healthier -- mentally, physically, emotionally and socially. Some of those benefits come from the training itself and the chemical changes that take place in the brain in response to such training, but other benefits are derived from simply receiving the sunlight and fresh air.
I've frequently talked about natural sunlight and the tremendous benefits of exposing your skin to sensible levels of ultraviolet radiation. Those benefits include the prevention of various cancers, depression, osteoporosis, diabetes and the enhanced absorption of calcium, which makes stronger bones. If you want your child to have strong bones, then he or she needs to get some sunshine and physical activity, along with decent nutrition that includes calcium and magnesium. Organized sports are a great way to expose your child to these elements so that he or she can develop strong bones. (And that's why sports involvement actually reduces the risk of injury overall.)
Don't poison your children with fluoride
Speaking of strong bones, when I was in grade school, I had a friend who broke at least one bone every year. All through school, it was sort of a running joke that this guy had weak bones. It didn't occur to me until years later why he had weak bones. The answer was fluorosis. He was being overdosed with fluoride.
He had the classic signs -- most notably the discoloration of the front teeth and the broken bones. Excessive exposure to fluoride will cause both of these effects. Parents have been brainwashed into exposing their children to way too much fluoride by the dental industry, which is so far behind on safety that it still actually promotes putting mercury into the mouths of children and expectant mothers through the use of dental fillings. If you have a child who has been breaking bones too easily, you might want to check out their fluoride intake. Too much fluoride will cause weakening of the bones and, of course, dental fluorosis.
Sports are worth the time, effort and cost
Getting back to physical education, I believe that involvement in sports or regular physical activities is one of the greatest gifts any parent can give their child. So parents, even if it costs you money, even if it's an inconvenience to pick up your child after school or take them to soccer practice, do it. It is worth it for the future of that child -- not only for their physical health but also for their mental health. Whatever money and effort you put into sports today will be more than made up for in the future by your child's lack of medical bills and prescription medications, thanks to the fact that he or she is far healthier than other children who participated in no physical activity.
Be an example of physical fitness
What about children who say they don't want to participate in any physical activity? Should you force them to do it? Well, to answer that question, let me pose another question: What are you, the parent, doing with your level of physical activity?
Children will mimic parents. If you smoke cigarettes, they're likely to smoke cigarettes. If you do drugs, they're likely to do drugs, and if you avoid physical exercise and sit on the couch for six hours a day watching television, guess what? They're going to end up doing something similar. For them, it might be playing video games on the XBox instead of watching TV, but it's still time spent sitting, doing nothing physical.
As a parent, you need to be the example. You need to get off your own butt and start engaging in physical activity if you want to encourage your child to do the same thing.
Many obese adults have obese children; it's not genes, it's called parental modeling
Some misinformed doctors say obesity is genetic because they look at parents and their children, and they draw the incorrect conclusion that, because both are obese, it must be genetic. The truth is, they're both obese because the parent refuses to exercise, and the child mimics the parent. Plus, they both follow the same obesity-promoting diet. It has nothing to do with genes and everything to do with something called parental modeling.
Children will model their behavior on those around them, especially those in positions of authority, which, of course, includes parents. If you want your child to be physically active, the most important thing you can do is set an example. If you refuse to be physically active, and yet you demand that they participate in sports, you're sending an incongruent message, which is, "Do what I say, not what I do." It's just like parents who smoke cigarettes and then punish their child for taking up smoking. It's an incongruent message, and it confuses children. It makes them frustrated, angry or rebellious, and chances are that your efforts to get them involved in physical exercise programs are going to fail unless you set an example first.
So find a way to work on a mini-trampoline in your own living room, do jumping jacks, take walks around the block, go swimming or biking, or play Frisbee golf. When you stay active, you're going to create an environment in which your child is far more likely to be interested in physical exercise.
Don't send a short kid to the high jump
Finally, I have one last bit of advice for parents looking at getting their children involved in physical exercise or sports programs: Look at your child's body, and take a minute to assess what he or she might be good at. If you have a son who is short and stocky, he's built to be good at wrestling, not the high jump. If he's tall and lanky, he might be much better as a distance runner on the track team. If he has incredible upper body strength, he might be great at football, but if he has a weak upper body but strong lower body, he might be a great sprinter, or he might be really good at soccer.
If he has incredible cardiovascular endurance, he might excel at soccer or basketball. If he's tall, basketball is an obvious choice. The same things hold true for younger girls as well. If your daughter has long legs and is in good cardiovascular shape, she'd be good at soccer or basketball. If she is a fast runner, she'd be great at track. If she is very thin and tall, she might be a great distance runner. Great flexibility and core strength lends itself to gymnastics or dancing. If she's stocky, there's always the shot put on the women's track team!
Look at your children's bodies and compare those bodies with professional athletes who are good at particular sports. You will notice that each professional athlete has a specific body proportion. Great cyclists, for example, tend to look very similar in terms of lower body strength versus upper body strength, leg length and so on. Great football players also have particular body proportions based on their field positions. Wide receivers are usually tall and thin with great cardiovascular endurance. Fullbacks are usually short, stocky and possess impressive leg strength combined with lightning-fast speed.
Body proportions and strengths make each child more suitable for particular activities. As a parent, it's a great idea to help assess the strengths of your child and steer them toward the sports for which they are best suited. If they're in the wrong sport -- let's say there's a really short child attempting to play basketball, for example -- then they could get discouraged very easily, whereas that same short child could do an outstanding job in gymnastics, for example.
In other words, don't try to fit a square peg in a round hole. We all are given a body, and we have to make the best of it. That means that no matter what our body size or shape, there are some sports and activities that we're going to be poor at, and there are others that we're more suited for and in which we can excel, and those are the ones that I hope you will guide your children toward. If you make the wrong choice, or if your child happens to be interested in a sport for which he or she is not well-suited, don't discourage them; let them play anyway. Do everything you can to keep them active. Maybe they'll play for one semester or one year, and they'll decide to change sports on their own. Maybe they want to do baseball instead of track, or perhaps they want to study martial arts outside the school or they want to go to a gymnastics camp. Any of these things will be greatly beneficial to the health of your child in the long-term.
Remember, one of the greatest gifts you can give to your children is getting them involved in sports programs or physical exercise programs. Just remember to keep it fun, keep it safe and set the best example yourself.
And what about academics? Obviously academics are important, but health must be the higher priority in my opinion. What good is a brain stuffed full of math and science facts if the heart can't pump oxygen to it? You can create the best test-taker in the world by cramming a child full of facts and formulas, but if he's obese and can't climb a flight of stairs without running out of breath, chances are that child will die of a heart attack before age 45. And then all that academic achievement is lost (because dead brains don't think very well).
Want to know where I learned self discipline and the rewards of hard work? I ran track for four years in high school. And my coach, Robert Parks, taught me more about life than any academic teacher. I am healthy today because of the habits I learned (and eventually rediscovered) running in circles around a football field.