TCNJ’s Own “Mythbuster” is Reshaping Views of Childhood Fitness

faigenbaum girl“For years, strength training has been thought to be unsafe and ineffective for children and adolescents,” said Avery Faigenbaum, professor of exercise science at the College. “People thought it would stunt the growth of children, or make them slower, or damage their developing musculoskeletal system.”

But Faigenbaum, one of the nation’s leading pediatric exercise scientists, has nearly 20 years worth of research data that proves that is not the case.

“Over the years, our work has shown that strength training as a method of conditioning offers observable health and fitness benefits to children” including favorable changes in body composition as well as injury reduction, he said.

“Nearly all major fitness and medical associations in the United States now endorses the fact that strength training is good for children, as long as it’s supervised and sensibly prescribed,” Faigenbaum added.

Those last points are key. “Children are not miniature adults. They need their own individualized programs, and they need to be properly supervised,” Faigenbaum said. In his latest book, Youth Strength Training, he and coauthor Wayne Westcott provide the latest research data and sample training programs for children from ages 7 to 18.

That’s right: children as young as 7 can reap the benefits of a properly prescribed and supervised strength-training program, Faigenbaum says. And while some parents might balk at the idea of their 7-year-olds pumping iron, Faigenbaum explained that “strength training” should not be confused with bodybuilding or power lifting.

“Strength training is a method of conditioning using different types of equipment that should focus on developing proper exercise technique. Youth programs should not focus on how much weight a child can lift,” Faigenbaum said. The goal of youth strength training is to expose boys and girls to an activity that can be performed for a lifetime, not bulk them up.

In addition to weight machines and dumbbells, a youth strength-training program could be as simple as following prescribed activities with a medicine ball. Faigenbaum is even developing programs that use nothing more than a child’s own body weight and balloons.

“Balloons invoke a natural desire to play, especially with 5- to 7-year-olds,” Faigenbaum said. The new programs include holding the balloon while squatting, lunging, and moving in different directions in order to enhance muscle strength as well as agility, balance, and coordination.

Tracy Radler ’92, a health and physical education teacher at Lore Elementary School in Ewing, has incorporated Faigenbaum’s balloon routines into her curriculum. She said that the results she has seen since implementing Faigenbaum’s program have been “through the roof.” Her students’ scores in their mandated physical fitness tests—in areas such as running, jumping, upper-arm strength, and wall-sitting—have all increased.

“Those activities are a lot of fun for the kids, but there is a lot science behind what I’m having them do,” Faigenbaum explained. “The children enjoy the movement-based approach to physical education while they are enhancing both health- and skill-related components of physical fitness.”

faigenbaum boyAlthough Faigenbaum’s research has helped make strength training acceptable for preteens, the subject was deemed “taboo” in the medical community when he was starting out in the field. As a graduate student at Boston University in the early 1990s, Faigenbaum decided to write his doctoral dissertation on the effects of strength training on children. He was told his ideas were too dangerous and that children would get hurt.

“At the time, there were only two studies published in English on the subject,” Faigenbaum said. As luck would have it, both researchers who wrote those studies—Westcott and Dr. Lyle Micheli (both of whom later became Faigenbaum’s coauthors on several publications)—were working in the Boston area. Faigenbaum tracked them down, explained his ideas, and both experts endorsed the young graduate student’s dissertation.

Since then, Faigenbaum has written more than 120 peer-reviewed articles, 25 book chapters, and eight books related to youth fitness and conditioning. He has taught at the College for six years, and his exercise science students continue to benefit from his work. Not only are they being exposed to the latest research in the field—which they can apply to the physical education, sports, or YMCA programs they go on to teach—but they are involved in all aspects of his research. Some of the work Faigenbaum did with his students was incorporated into his most recent book; other work has been published in scholarly journals.

“It’s taken about 20 years, but we now know that strength training done properly, with good nutrition, makes children’s bones stronger,” Faigenbaum said. Although the myth still persists in some corners, his research is gaining more widespread attention. Upon the publication of his most recent book, National Public Radio (NPR) interviewed him for a spot on youth fitness.

“For a guy like me, whose research has been somewhat controversial since 1990, when NPR called up—that was big,” said Faigenbaum.

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