Saturday, March 12, 2016

Staying healthy as an athlete

Many people assume that kids who are active in sports are automatically healthy, but that can be far from the truth. Sports do provide exercise, but not all kids participate at the same intensity level, some sports are more inherently challenging, many kids don't eat the needed foods to provide optimal nutrition, and many kids fall far short of the sleep they need to maintain healthy body and mind. There needs to be a balance: eat right, sleep adequately, and exercise daily. Kids also need time to be kids with unstructured time in addition to school, homework, and activities.

Not a typical team sport, but my kids don't do typical sports. This is from an office Bubble Soccer game. 

Eat right

First and foremost with nutrition, we all need to maintain hydration. Many kids avoid drinking at school so they don't have to use the restroom. This is of course not healthy. Talk to your kids about the importance of drinking throughout the day and troubleshoot toileting issues. When kids exercise, be sure they stay hydrated. The large majority of athletes need nothing more than water to stay hydrated. Water is by far the preferred drink of sports nutrition experts unless there is intense exercise longer than 60 - 90 minutes. This does not mean a child playing a baseball game for more than 60 minutes because they are not maintaining the level of intense exercise for the entire game. If a child is running a marathon, added electrolytes might be needed, but short of that type of intensity/duration, water is fine. Sports drinks add far too much sugar and unneeded salts to the diet. Encourage kids to take a sip or two of water every 15-20 minutes of exercise (more or less depending on how hot it is and the intensity of exercise).

As for foods, not all are equal and not all that are marketed as healthy really are healthy. Get in the habit of reading labels. The longer the ingredient list, the less healthy it probably is unless the ingredients are all foods themselves (such as a trail mix with a number of dried fruits and nuts). I've previously addressed the issues of kids getting too many calories. Far too many of our kids are overweight or obese. Many of them are active in sports, but they take in more calories than they use.

  • Carbohydrates give quick energy for activity. Examples of healthy carbs are bananas, berries, oats, pasta, rice, and whole grain breads. These are recommended before exercise for energy (but kids don't usually need to carb load unless they are doing an endurance sport), and after exercise with a protein. 
  • Protein is important for building and maintaining muscle. I like kids to eat foods with protein and to avoid protein shakes and powders, which are expensive and could possibly lead to too much protein. Examples of good protein sources include nuts and nut butters, eggs, lean meats and fish, yogurt (look for a brand without added sugar) and other dairy products. About 5 -15 g of protein (or about 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein for every pound of body weight) is all that's needed after a workout, depending on age, size, and workout intensity. Many Americans get far more daily protein than is needed.
  • Fat is not as bad as many people make it out to be. It is an important energy source for our bodies and helps us absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Healthy fats come from nuts, avacados, meats, dairy products, and eggs. 


Many athletes (and teens in general) fail to get sufficient sleep for good health. They are torn between the demands of school, sports, clubs, volunteering, and making the time for sleep. The spiral typically has them staying up late to catch up on homework, only to be more tired the following day, which leads to poor focus at school - then everything takes longer to do. This encourages them to stay up even later to finish homework, which reinforces the problem. It is not uncommon for me to hear teens report anywhere between 4 and 8 hours of sleep. None of this is enough. Kids who are chronically sleep deprived suffer from more injuries, falling grades, general irritability and depression. I see many teens who want me to find a reason for their fatigue with labs, but it commonly is simply due to sleep debt.

Try to get kids to get enough sleep so they are easy to wake in the morning, stay alert all day, and aren't irritable or hyper in the evenings. If they have trouble sleeping, talk with their doctor.

From the National Sleep Foundation

I see far too many kids who claim to be very active and eat healthy, yet they have problems keeping up with other kids running or have BMIs that seem too high for the reported habits (not due to muscle mass). This could be due to an underlying problem, such as asthma, or habits that aren't as healthy as you think. Bring your child in for a yearly physical to review eating, sleeping, and exercise habits in addition to other health related issues. With most insurance companies there is no co pay for well care, so make the most of your insurance dollars and schedule a well visit! If there are any concerns, you can work with your child's doctor to find help.