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Childhood Is The Right Time To Train The Brain In Motor Skills, But Many Kids Are Missing Out

Port of San Diego/CC
Kids learn valuable motor skills with sports like gymnastics.

Kids may not be getting the kind of exercise they need in P.E. class, according to recent research. In a recent paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Gregory Myer, a researcher in sports medicine at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, argues that the neuroplasticity of pre-adolescent brains allows for easier development of skills like jumping, throwing, kicking and balancing, skill often no longer emphasized in school exercise curricula.   

School kids these days are lucky if they get any form of daily exercise, let alone the type of motor skills training Myer advocates. National guidelines recommend kids and teens get 60 minutes of physical activity every day. But 48 to 69 percent of students in school do not attend a physical education class in a given week, according to the Institute of Medicine. Forty-four percent of school administrators report cutting significant time from P.E. and recess to give more time to reading and math since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, according to an IMO report.

Myer says that not only should kids be spending more time in gym class, but they should be doing more activities specialized in acquiring motor skills, and building muscular strength that they can use later in life. Adolescents and adults trying to acquire motor skills for the first time often don’t do as well – much as learning a second language is easier when you’re very young. But he says that concerns about safety and litigation are holding schools back from more rigorous exercise.

Dr. Myer recently spoke with Sound Medicine about some of his findings.

Sound Medicine: What is missing from today's fitness recommendations for schools and parents?

Dr. Greg Myer: We've been looking at a lot of adult-based recommendations that have kind of spilled down to our youth. We've kind of gotten away from gymnastics-based activities for kids in physical education [that were common in the 1950s]. And now we're seeing more continuous and aerobic-based activities being recommended for kids, and it's just not effective. 

So we wanted to spur some discussion about what many current guidelines keep reproducing, saying that 60 minutes of physical activity is what we need every day for kids, every guideline keeps pounding this home, but we're not hitting that mark, and we see our youth getting more obese and less active. So we've got to do something different.

SM: What sorts of activities do kids tend to do in P.E. in school these days? Do schools even offer physical education time anymore? 

GM: There's probably only one mechanism where we can actually reach a majority of our youth, and that's our education system. Our physical education teachers are trained to teach children how to move and play. So their schooling has put them in the position to reach these kids, and they have a background. And then we continue to take a way that opportunity with cuts. P.E. is continually being the lowest common denominator where we think we can cut. 

What kinds of activity [children] in P.E. do can vary based on the structure and we have a lot of great physical education instructors, but we're seeing some trends where we're starting to do more aerobic-based movements. And part of that is driven by the litigious nature of our society, where we might be less likely to get them involved in risky movement, or climbing a rope where they might fall. We've seen some of this in school yards where some schools are banning running at recess, or stopping kids from having balls at recess due to fear of being sued or liability. So we see some of these trends pushing us towards safer, non-strength building activities. And many schools now just have once a week when kids are involved in P.E., and that's just not enough. 

SM: In the article, you say that focusing merely on time, the 60 minutes a day, doesn't necessarily provide young people with all the development they could be getting from exercise. So let's start with motor skills. What are motor skills?

GM: Motor skills are skills that are needed to support more complex movements. They're basic, fundamental movement skills. So for example, a squat maneuver. If you take a picture of a child, they can squat, put their butt almost to the floor perfectly with great technique. But if you tell the average adolescent to do a squat it will look very poor. They've lost the skills, partially because their  motor control or their ability to control movement is affected by their rapid-growing bones, growing faster than their muscles. They've gotten much taller, they've gotten much more mass, and they're center of mass is harder control. 

SM: If you reach adulthood without good motor skills, what are you setting yourself up for?

GM: There's a good analogy I like to use: would you rather teach a foreign language to a five year-old, or to a forty year-old? If you start early there's a very high level of neuroplasticity, which means that the body, and the brain especially is able to adapt and respond to new stimuli.

So as a child if we get them involved in these movement skills, and more importantly strength building skills, so they build that basal level of strength that will support the movements that they want to do as they get older. If we teach them when they're young we can continue to build upon them as they grow. And then as they are an adolescent they can do more complex or more demanding tasks that they'll benefit from.

Physical education when I was younger, and back in the 1950s was very gymnastics-based and strength-based. We would do somersaults, we'd climb rope. We'd do skill and strength based activities. And now we're seeing a trend that might be more aerobics based, or game-play without instruction. 

SM: So if you could have your wishes come true what sort of activities would you have these kids do?

GM: My colleague Dr. Avery Faigenbaum has gotten into schools and taken the first ten minutes of physical education, and he takes balloons and makes the children hold balloons and do movements as directed- basically teaching them control of their bodies, and strength maneuvers.  And then they'd go on and do their regular courses. And he found significant increases in all their motor skills. Their power-based, and also their aerobic-based activities improved. 

SM: Do you have any suggestions for parents of young children?

GM: It's a great idea to get [young children] involved in a variety of sports. P.E. is probably the only way they're going to get exposure to some sports like tennis, which can also be a lifetime sport. There's data that supports some of the Olympian athletes played multiple sports, and specialized in their current sport very late in life. So creating that robust system of neuromuscular control and movement skills, and strength with multiple sports may be the best way to go. 

And we have data to suggest that young girls who specialized earlier can have more problems with knee pain during their adolescent years. That study suggested that playing a variety of sports may take away some of those stresses and reduce those risks of overuse injuries that we hear about.