I grew up during the 1950s and '60s in Madison, WI, in a family that lived and breathed sports, and I don't mean watching sports. We played sports, outdoors: hockey, cycling, tennis, hiking, golf. My grandparents lived on a lake so we were always outside swimming and skating. We even had our own personal physician in the off chance any injuries occurred, my Dad, Dr. Jack Heiden, an orthopedic surgeon.
I remember when I was 12, I broke my wrist speed skating the same day I'd gotten the cast off from breaking my wrist cycling. And that was the second time I'd broken my wrist speed skating!
Did Dad rush in and advise me to take it easy or give up the sport? No way. My family never pressured us, but they really made activity a priority. My sister, Beth, and I didn't begin training seriously as speed skaters until 1972, but because we'd always been so active, only eight years later we both medaled at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Today I'm an orthopedic surgeon myself, in Utah, and I find medical science has the answers to many of the fitness questions I had as an Olympian, a competitive cyclist and, yes, as a parent of two kids myself, questions that my patients also bring to me.
As we head into winter, a time when many families slow their level of activity, it seemed the perfect time to start sharing that fitness information with other families.
A recent study of children around the world, in fact, suggests that we all need to embrace winter sports with greater gusto. Researchers from the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Helsinki found that children under 15 are more likely to develop Type 1 diabetes in winter. (Type 1 diabetes is often referred to as life-long or insulin-dependent diabetes.)
According to Elena Moltchanova, Ph.D., who led the study, published in the August issue of the journal Diabetes Medicine, the research doesn't point directly to the cause of this seasonal peak in pediatric diabetes; however, a decrease in kids' activity in winter may well be a contributor.
Here are some overall fitness tips for families that cover all seasons:
- Don't steer your children away from sports for fear of injury. In doing so, we may risk causing them long-term physical harm due to lack of exercise. Recent statistics on obesity tell the tale: far too many kids are suffering the consequences of inactivity.
- Learn about those sports that cause the most and worst injuries, and find alternatives you feel good about your kids playing. Only a few sports, like tackle football, were off-limits in our family. Dad understood the consequences of a serious knee injury. Instead, my parents let us play hockey.
- Support your children in their interests. Growing up, we were encouraged to play lots of sports. Today, my kids do, too. They swim, ski, ride bikes and play lots of outdoor hockey with Dad.
- Don't force your kids into any sport, but urge them to keep going when others might be quitting or giving up -- wise advice for sports and for life.
- Support the groups and associations that support your kids' interests, and never badger the coaches. My parents were big backers of the U.S. Speed Skating Association.
- If your child should suffer an injury, ask your doctor for treatment options that don't sideline your child from all activity. One time, my dad set a hockey player's broken wrist while he was holding a stick, so it would be in the right position for him to play with the cast on. When I broke my leg bike riding, Dad made a long-leg cast set with a top part I could remove to keep riding.
- Be sure your kids see you active and engaged in sports. The value you place on activity in your own life will be mirrored in theirs.
( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic Gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, MD, and DeAnne Musolf. www.heidenorthopaedics.com)
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