Children who regularly complete strength training exercises have a lower risk of developing diabetes and heart-related diseases, according to a study by a Baylor University researcher.

The study, led by health, human performance and recreation department Chairman Paul Gordon, suggests that strength training may have greater benefits against those diseases than simply diet and aerobic or cardio exercises.

The research was published last month in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal. Examples of strength-building exercises recommended for children include pushups, situps, organized sports and climbing on play equipment, Gordon said.

“We’re not necessarily advocating in young children that they should start pumping iron, by any means,” Gordon said. “But there’s a tendency in our nation for physical education to be removed in our schools, and our data would suggest that having children engaged in these strengthening activities through play, through climbing activities or whatever, that can engage their muscles is very beneficial.”

The study examined data like blood pressure, fasting glucose levels, cholesterol and body fat from about 1,400 children ages 10 to 12 collected at the University of Michigan, where Gordon was a faculty member before joining Baylor in August.

The study analyzed those markers against students’ average grip strength, a measurement of overall strength using a dynamometer.

Children with a higher grip strength had lower cardiometabolic risk markers, even when controlling for factors like higher BMIs or lower daily physical activity.

“Our data would suggest that even when you control for body mass, kids who are stronger are going to have lower risk (for diabetes and heart diseases),” Gordon said.

“We do know that stronger muscles respond in a much more healthy fashion. Glucose metabolism is better in a healthy muscle, stronger muscle. They tend to have good amounts of circulation that can help blood flow and so forth.”

About 11.3 percent of U.S. residents ages 20 and younger have diabetes, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

County assessment

In McLennan County, about 6.3 percent of McLennan County residents with the disease were diagnosed before age 18, according to a 2013 community health needs assessment released by the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District.

Local school districts already incorporate some strength-training exercises in physical education classes as part of fitness programs designed to boost students’ overall wellness. Students already have to demonstrate endurance, flexibility and strength as part of the state-mandated annual FitnessGram assessment.

Cindy Strunk is the physical education teacher for Bell’s Hill Elementary School in the Waco Independent School District.

Her students begin each class doing a series of cardio, stretching or muscle warm-ups based on customized posters Strunk had printed that feature students demonstrating the various exercises.

The muscle warm-up posters include upper-body strengthening moves like pushups, planks and dips, as well as core exercises like Russian twists, mountain climbers and “Reggie climbers,” named after a Bell’s Hill student who invented the move.

The warm-ups are followed with a mile run or walk, depending on students’ choice, and a game period in which students play activities like soccer, tag, basketball, tennis, and even Wii dancing games.

“It’s just fun and we want to give them options and put the responsibility on them to be in charge of their own fitness,” Strunk said. “They will go to middle school without us. They go home without us; we want them to be prepared to take care of their own bodies and their own health.”

Fifth-grader C.J. Walker, 11, said he prefers some of the strength-building exercises like pushups and pullups instead of running, which he said makes him more tired and sweaty. He also wants to build more muscle since he started playing football and basketball in the past two years.

“I feel swole,” said Walker, 11, after doing pushups in class. “I have to build my strength up, and if I keep doing pushups and pullups, I’ll get stronger.”

At Tennyson Middle School, pushups and situps are part of the daily warm-up routine. Students also have a monthlong unit focused on strength training and weights, and they are required to create a strength plan that includes a rotation of different weight-lifting reps or exercises like squats.

PE teacher Brandy Hemphill said the goal is to teach students how to safely complete strength exercises so they can begin to develop their own workout and fitness routines as they get older.

“Some of the smaller girls, when it’s time to do weights, they don’t want to do it because they’re afraid of it, so it’s about easing them into it,” she said.

Conditioning plan

Hemphill, who also coaches basketball, track and volleyball, said she teaches her students some conditioning exercises used by her student-athletes. The students also must run timed laps on the school’s track.

At Castleman Creek Elementary School in Midway ISD, students have access to a rock-climbing wall for upper-body strengthening. PE teacher Jalayne Rinewalt said she also may use small medicine balls or kettle bells for some strength-training exercises, but the emphasis is more on getting children more active, not developing a specific strength-building regimen.

Rinewalt said some strength-building moves may be more complicated for smaller children. For example, younger students may do caterpillar pushups, in which the students bend and walk their hands forward until they end in a traditional push-up position, then stand.

“If you’re talking about the overall wellness of a kiddo, everything we do ties in with that,” Rinewalt said. “Elementary kiddos don’t have as much upper-body strength, so we don’t focus solely on strength (exercises); it’s more on eating healthy, getting kids physically active for 30 to 45 minutes a day, that’s what our push is.”

Gordon plans to do further research to determine how much strength activity is needed to effectively lower children’s risk for diabetes and heart disease. He also is conducting studies on the impact of genetics in determining someone’s risk levels.

“This is certainly a big issue, trying to make sure that we raise healthy kids,” Gordon said. “We are starting to see children develop much earlier signs and symptoms of heart disease and diabetes, so it’s a growing concern that we have a healthier nation with our children.”

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