Preteens are often not the most “forward looking” of individuals. This is why they tend to focus on “here and now” goals—the ones with an immediate payoff—rather than on longer-term ones. When preteens participate in sports or other forms of exercise, the activity itself is usually the reward. For most of them, it’s about having fun and building skills. For some, it may also be about being more attractive, more popular, and more involved with their peers. But it’s NOT typically about their health.
But here’s the interesting thing: The fact that they’re involved in physical activities that help (even incidentally) to build strength now actually increases the likelihood that they will be healthier adults later. That is the essential finding of a new study published in the journal Pediatrics. Working with over 1,400 sixth-graders, the researchers found that those with the strongest muscles had healthier blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and body-fat levels than those who were weaker.
The preteens’ strength was tested using a standardized hand-grip exercise. Blood tests were then performed to detect the kids’ risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. Greater strength was associated with lower blood pressure and blood sugar. In addition, the preteens with greater strength had lower levels of the “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and higher levels of the “good” HDL cholesterol.
These results were directly tied to muscle strength. They remained consistent even when the researchers factored in whether the kids were slimmer, or more physically active. As researcher Paul Gordon says in the study, “Even when you factor in these other things, that association with strength is still there.”
Gordon was quick to point out that their results don’t prove that stronger muscles lead directly to better health, just that they “shed light on the fact that strength may be just as important a predictor of kids’ [health] as aerobic fitness.” The students in the study were divided on the basis of their hand-grip strength into groups of low, moderate, and high strength. Kids in the high strength group had LDL levels that were 10 points lower, and triglyceride levels that were 20-30 points lower than those in the low strength group.
Although kids’ cholesterol levels and blood pressure may not be an immediate health issue for them, Gordon points out that “Kids with risk factors tend to become young adults with risk factors.” Thus, if preteens can be encouraged to participate in more strength-building sports and exercises, they can possibly develop health patterns that will continue into adulthood. This doesn’t mean that kids should be encouraged to “pump iron,” merely that they should engage in more strength training activities.
Many studies have indicated that the combination of strength training and aerobic exercise work better than either of the two alone in reducing weight and blood-sugar levels. This study seems to show that strength training in the young can reduce their adult risk of heart disease and diabetes as well.