Children are encouraged to be physically active from a young age.

For some children, physical activity may include team or individual sports. As early as kindergarten, children can start participating in sports, though it is recommended that the number of hours they spend on physical activity be equivalent to their age. For example, a five-year-old should spend no more than five hours a week playing sports. Introducing kids to a variety of sports is a good way to keep them interested in playing and developing healthy exercise habits.

“Physical activity is conducive to good health overall, helping to keep hearts healthy and develop bones and muscles. However, there needs to be a balance between developing those structures and overusing them,” says Mark Halstead, MD, Washington University pediatric orthopedic specialist at the Washington University and St. Louis Children’s Young Athlete Center. “They should be used, but not abused. From a mental health standpoint, research has shown that physical activity is extremely beneficial as far as helping a person focus, concentrate and be more alert throughout the day, so there are also academic benefits to being active and participating in sports.”

Overused Muscles
Specializing in only one sport may lead to overuse injuries due to repeated stress on one muscle group. Some examples are baseball injuries that can appear in shoulders and elbows.

Runners tend to develop injuries in the knees or feet. Bones and muscles in those areas can also be affected.

The overused area will depend on the repetitive movements of the sport because each target different muscle groups. Sport sampling—learning more than one sport—is encouraged as a way to prevent overuse injuries. By playing a sport that targets a different muscle group, children can strengthen other areas of their bodies. Trying different sports may have the added benefit of introducing children to a sport they are really good at but might not have thought of playing before.

Wait to Go Pro
Although some kids swim, play baseball or softball year-round on select teams, it is recommended that kids take a break. Just like professional athletes, kids need time to rest and recover before taking on the challenge of another sports season. Ideally, kids should take at least a one-month break between sport seasons, but a three-month period off of sports is most helpful. 

Kids should not specialize in only one sport before high school.

Until then, if a child wants to participate in sports year-round, they should try different sports to help develop all muscle groups and prevent overuse injuries. For instance, if a child plays baseball in spring, he may try swimming in the summer. This will help him develop strong muscle groups overall while lowering the risk of an overuse injury.

Fun Factor
“Sports should be enjoyable and fun, otherwise kids may burn out and stop participating in sports altogether because they are pushed too hard into specializing in only one sport,” Dr. Halstead says.

Sports sampling may help kids discover other sports they really love while helping them stay healthy through physical activity. Instead of making a child a better player, specializing in one sport too soon may have the opposite effect since it may lead to overuse injuries or burnout. Kids should be encouraged to try all kinds of sports as long as they are having fun participating in them.

For help finding a pediatric orthopedic specialist, call 
St. Louis Children’s Hospital at 800.678.5437.