Youth sports can be key tool in fighting weight issues

As the weather gets warmer, children and adults can’t help but head outside. While some enjoy winter sports such as ice skating or swimming at an indoor pool, spring provides a new opportunity for kids to become involved in a wide variety of sports. Physical activity is an important tool as we continue to fight the trend of children becoming overweight and obese.

Our First Lady, Michelle Obama, has brought the struggle with childhood obesity into the spotlight. In 2007, it was reported by the Boston Public Health Commission that 20 percent of Boston teenagers were overweight, and 15 percent were obese. This battle is something that affects communities of all kinds across the nation, but disproportionately affects some populations. In many city communities, access to affordable, nutritious meals and fresh produce is limited, but access to physical activity and sports programming is another inequity that does not often receive the same level of attention.

The benefits of sports for children and teens extend far beyond physical fitness. Northeastern’s Center for Sport in Society emphasizes that playing sports helps children and adolescents improve self-esteem and develop important social skills, while lowering their risk for drug use and teen pregnancy. Additionally, participation in sports can provide youth with an opportunity to develop leadership skills and to work with others toward a common goal, despite individual differences, strengths, and weaknesses.

Sports can act as a tool to start the discussion about health and alternatives to violence. And these benefits are not solely available to top athletes. While competitive club and school sports provide enrichment and opportunity for scores of children and teens, adolescents of all skills levels and interests should be able to enjoy the benefits of sports.

While sports are equally important for all of us, sports opportunities may not be equally available to all. A 2008 study from the Woman’s Sports Foundation reports that while suburban communities enjoy comparable levels of participation among males and females, in urban communities such as Boston, girls are participating at lower rates than their male peers.

Sports are for everyone, and the effort to bring the benefits of participation to more kids can start with the family. While some adolescents may instantly gravitate toward volleyball or track, parents may find that children need to try a variety of activities in order to find something they like. Even if a child’s passion is music or reading, there is still a place for them in the world of sports. While the first activities that come to mind may traditionally be basketball, baseball, or soccer, there are host of other sports that give children and teens an opportunity to find their niche. Some sports that are gaining popularity include ultimate Frisbee, double-dutch ,and disc-golf. Thinking outside the box may be especially helpful in encouraging girls and young women to participate. The Woman’s Sports Foundation reported in 2008 that girls are now participating in a wider variety of sports than boys, as males appear likely to engage in more traditional sports.

Sports don’t need to be expensive or fancy. A family jump-rope competition or dancing are two simple and inexpensive ways to become more active. If you want a night out without spending a lot of money, consider roller skating, bowling, or wall/rock-climbing. Chez-Vous Roller-Skating Rink in Dorchester costs around $10 for adults, while Rock Spot Climbing in Hyde Park has discounts for families on Sunday nights and costs around $15 for adults, including equipment and a lesson. For the same price as a night at the movies, your family can become active while spending more time together.

With April being Youth Sports Safety Month, there are a few precautions parents should keep in mind when kids are participating in sports. Dehydration is always a risk when actively participating in sports. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends drinking approximately a half-to-one cup of water every 15 minutes while exercising. Another important safety measure is making sure that children wear well-fitting and appropriate clothing when participating in sports. Sneakers that are too big or too small add to the risk of sprained ankles and other injuries, while baggy clothing may get stuck on equipment. Additionally, parents should make sure that their children have a physical before beginning a sports program, and should inform all coaches and staff about any health conditions, such as asthma, that their children may have.

A great place to start exploring the sports available to youth in Mattapan and Hyde Park is at the community centers, run by the Boston Center for Youth and Families. To give a general idea of what is available, the Mattapan Community Health Center has begun a physical activity newsletter, available in its waiting room. The latest newsletter will be available in mid-April. For help with finding ways to get your child or teen involved, contact Maryalice Wolfe, the Mattapan Health Center’s Youth Sports Health Coordinator, at 617-296-0061 or send an e-mail to wolfem@matchc.org.