Just as you monitor your child’s academic progress and social development, you also need to keep an eye on their fitness level. Along with strength and endurance, flexibility is a key component of fitness. If your child is active in sports and other physical activities — whether competitive or recreational — flexibility issues may affect their health, athletic performance and increase their risk of injury.
When kids are too tight
Around the ages of 5-6, when children begin sitting regularly at a desk, the hamstrings are forced into a tight, shortened position for many hours a day. Spending long hours hunched over mobile devices, in front of the TV or computer, compounds the problem even more — leading to tightness in the legs, back, neck and shoulders; all of which adversely affect posture, breathing and their ability to concentrate. In some case, this will cause aches, pain and headaches.
For youth, muscles tend to be tight in the pre-teen and early teen years when children experience short periods of rapid growth. During this phase of physical development when bones grow quickly and muscles have not yet adjusted yet, poorer flexibility may become a real problem. This relates to what we often call “growing pains” which can be severe enough to interrupt sleep.
If your child is active in sports and other physical activities, poor flexibility can prevent them from performing at their best and increase risk of injury. And short, tight muscles are more susceptible to strain.
When kids are too lose
Being unusually flexible is referred to as hyper-mobile, or double-jointed. This is when joints are exceptionally loose and limbs move beyond the normal ranges of motion. Children’s knees and elbows might extend beyond what is considered straight, or children might be able to bend their thumbs or pinkies in extreme ways. Hyper-mobility tends to run in families, and girls tend to exhibit greater joint looseness than boys of the same age. As hyper-mobile children age and continue to grow, their muscles become stronger and tighter, and joint mobility may normalise. In some cases, hyper-mobility and its various symptoms continue into adulthood.
For children who participate in activities that value a high level of flexibility — including gymnastics, ballet and martial arts — hypermobility is often considered a plus. However, the condition can lead to a host of unpleasant symptoms, including muscle and joint aches, pain, swelling and cramping. Pain symptoms are more common in the lower extremities, including the thighs and calves, and tend to affect larger joints, including the knees and elbows. Hyper-mobile children are often prone to sprains, soft tissue injuries, joint dislocations and back pain.
What we can do to help
Regular, consistent stretching and active mobility is key to maintaining and boosting a child’s flexibility. Before physical activity, children should warm up with several minutes of general activity, followed by dynamic stretching; we also call this active mobility, which involves continuous, repetitive movement. After exercise, children should spend several minutes doing static stretches for major muscle groups, including the shoulders, quads, hamstrings and calves.
Hyper-mobile children might require basic strengthening exercises to counteract the effects of their condition. They should avoid behaviors that over-stretch their affected joints, such as sitting cross-legged and standing with locked knees. As a parent, teacher or coach, you should discourage hyper-mobile children from “cracking” their knuckles and other joints and entertaining friends with stunts that demonstrate their incredible joint mobility.