Alex practises his boxing skills with personal trainer Caroline Freedman (Photo: Sam Pearce)
My six-year-old son Alex has a problem. He is a boy with boundless energy who spends much of the day bouncing up and down, occasionally finding time to assault his sister, Lucy. But although he finds it almost impossible to sit still, he is not a fan of physical exercise. When I ask him whether he would like to go out and kick a football with me he usually declines. "I'm stupid at football," he says. As a child who enjoys physical rough and tumble, you would think he might enjoy learning a martial art. But after one session of taekwondo, he refused to go back. Why? I asked him. "It weakened me," he replied.
So how do you get a boy like Alex, who lacks confidence and ability in traditional sports, to participate in and enjoy exercise? Personal trainer Caroline Freedman, who is based in Finchley, North London, has worked with children of all ages and abilities for years and claims she has never found a single one who has not enjoyed something.
She suggests that given his proclivity for combat, Alex might enjoy learning a little boxing. He meets the suggestion with unbounded enthusiasm. Alex has for a while considered himself a superhero in waiting and now he has the boxing gloves to prove it. After a few minutes he is already working up a sweat. Gratifyingly, though, he is also listening to Freedman's instructions, and is punching the pads in a technically correct fashion. She is impressed.
Freedman says children like Alex are not uncommon. "A lot of kids don't enjoy football, rugby, hockey and other team sports because their co-ordination isn't great or they are not that athletic. If you can find something they are good at their confidence will increase."
The most important thing with children is to make sure they have fun. "It's not like maths or English - they don't have to cover the entire curriculum - they just need to discover something that gives them pleasure."
Every child responds to something different. For example, overweight children are often good at strength work, says Freedman.
"They might not be the quickest on the track but they enjoy the fact that they might be stronger than the skinny, agile kids."
Her other main rule is not to overdo it. "The key is to do no more than 40 minutes - an hour can seem a very long time to a young child. You want them to leave wanting more, rather than thinking it was such hard work they don't want to come back."
She also thinks it is vital to keep the sessions moving along quickly. In Alex's case this means a little weightlifting (for a child of Alex's age this is nothing heavier than the weight of a couple of books) and a game of catch with a lightly weighted medicine ball.
Freedman offers personal training and group training, which she maintains can have huge benefits for fitness and confidence. But she adds that the key for parents is to make exercise a way of life for their children. "Get them to walk to the shops rather than driving them. Encourage them to walk up the escalators and aim for a couple of 40-minute sessions of activity at least twice a week. This could mean playing football with friends, bouncing on a trampoline or running around in the park. It could be as simple as playing a game in the garden. There is a lot children can do without even realising they are exercising."
As for Alex, he is keen to put on the boxing gloves again. In fact, maybe he is a little too enthusiastic about his new hobby - in the car a few days later, he says: "Perhaps I could do boxing as my job when I grow up."
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