Breakfast and the Student Athlete

Raising a Generation of Breakfast Skippers?

A few years back, a market research company called the NPD Group conducted a study that found that 31 million Americans (about 10% across the entire population) regularly skipped breakfast. As a group, the biggest offenders were males between the ages of 18 and 34, 28% of whom reported skipping a morning meal. This is not good, but in some ways it’s unsurprising. However, the researchers also identified a worrisome pattern among children—the percentage of kids who don’t eat or drink anything in the morning rises as they get older and peaks at 14% for 13 to 17-year-olds. A similar pattern was identified in a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, but the numbers painted a somewhat starker picture: 20% of children (aged 9 to 13 years) and 31.5% of adolescents (aged 14 to 18 years) were breakfast skippers. And—to make matters worse—several experts are convinced that the percentage of children who do not regularly eat a morning meal is trending upward.

Why Care?

Both the general pattern and the upward trend are cause for concern for at least two longer-term reasons:

  • Breakfast skipping is associated with eating more (and typically less healthy) food later in the day as well as unhealthy weight gain.
  • Adolescents are growing rapidly and establishing nutritional habits that are likely to follow them into adulthood.

But for one population—student athletes—skipping breakfast may have more immediate consequences.

Breakfast and Athletic Performance

A group of researchers in the UK recently measured the athletic performance of 10 males later in the day after having eaten breakfast and compared it to their performance on days when breakfast had been skipped. Interestingly, they found that athletic performance was indeed significantly impaired when the participants skipped breakfast. But there was another wrinkle as well. The researchers discovered that participants couldn’t make up for skipping breakfast simply by eating more at lunch. While participants did indeed tend to consume more at lunch after skipping breakfast (by about 200 calories), their performance still suffered relative to the days they ate breakfast.

The Point for Parents

While this small-scale study is hardly the final word (For instance, it’s not clear how the results translate to children, adolescents or females.), it seems reasonable to offer a bit of simple advice to parents of young athletes.

If your son or daughter is planning to practice or compete in a sport during the late afternoon or evening, it’s a good idea to encourage them to eat a good breakfast.  While other research has established a clear link between breakfast and scholastic performance, this research suggests that breakfast may also be the most important meal of the day when it comes to physical activity after school.

And there is NO reason to suppose that the eating a good breakfast isn’t beneficial for parents, too! The more that researchers study breakfast, the more they learn about its importance to both cognitive and physical function.

As chiropractic physicians, we have a particular interest in helping our patients develop good lifestyle habits that will help them avoid illness and injury. Whether you have general questions or specific health concerns, we encourage you to call or visit our office. We’re here to help!

What are Muscle Cramps and How Can They Be Prevented?

Have you ever had a good night’s sleep interrupted by a stabbing pain through the calf of your leg? Have you ever been gripped by agonizing spasms in your lower back that threatened to knock you down? When a muscle tightens without you “telling it to” and just won’t relax despite your best efforts, you are suffering a muscle cramp. Most muscles in your body are what are called “voluntary” muscles. These can usually be contracted and relaxed in order to control your arms, legs, fingers, neck, posture and more. Even the simplest movements are a highly synchronized sequence of muscle contractions and relaxations.

A muscle—or even a few fibers of a muscle—that contracts without conscious control, is having a spasm. When such a muscle remains powerfully contracted for an extended period of time, it becomes a cramp and the muscle becomes visibly hardened.

A muscle cramp can involve part of a muscle, the entire muscle or a group of muscles. It can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes—and sometimes far longer. Some children can experience cramps, but it is more common with adults, especially as they age. Nearly everyone experiences a cramp at some time in their life.

All of the skeletal muscles that we use to move our body are subject to cramping. Perhaps the most frequent cramp is in the calf of the leg—what is commonly called a “charley horse.” So what causes these cramps?

Vigorous movement when the body is not used to such activity can result in muscle fatigue and cramping. You can reduce the risk of cramps by gently stretching the muscles before and after any activity to warm up and cool down. Also, build up to the activity slowly. Don’t go from zero to peak exertion right away. Let your muscles get used to the change in activity. Also, do your best to be consistent with your exercise regimen. On-again, off-again workouts can increase the risk of cramps. Remember—good exercise habits build flexibility, balance and coordination as well as stamina and strength. That don’t build flexibility as well as strength and, otherwise you might confuse your muscles, resulting in greater risk of cramps.

But exercise isn’t the only thing that can trigger a muscle cramp. What about those spasms that start while you’re asleep and wake you up in the middle of the night? If you tend to get cramps while you sleep, then try stretching your muscles before going to bed.

A chemical imbalance in your body can also result in cramps—especially if you’ve been under a lot of stress or not eating a healthy, balanced diet (or both). Your nervous and musculoskeletal systems rely on a combination of specific nutrients for muscle control. Vitamin B, plus calcium, magnesium and potassium can help restore the chemical balance within your body. Natural sources are always the best. Bananas, raw avocados and cooked spinach are great for extra potassium and other nutrients. Staying hydrated with electrolytes can help prevent or alleviate cramping. Some athletes even swear by drinking sour pickle juice for its minerals!

You should also be aware that a thyroid condition, diabetes or certain medications can also increase the risk of cramps. If you’re experiencing frequent or unusual muscle spasms that seem unrelated to exercise or diet (especially if you’re aware of other health problems or are taking prescription medications), you should consult your physicians about your symptoms.


Youth Sports: Are Single-Sport Child Athletes Really More Likely to Succeed Later?

Especially if they’re athletes or sports fans themselves, it’s not unusual for mothers and fathers to have secret (or not-so-secret) hopes that their kids can become good enough in a sport to earn a college scholarship or go on to a professional career. Some parents believe that the best way to work toward this goal is to encourage their children—sometimes as young as 6 or 7 years old—to focus on a single sport as early as possible. The reasoning behind this early specialization is pretty simple: Kids who are not splitting their time among multiple sports will get better, faster (and be more competitive) than their “distracted” peers. In other words, the children who commit early get a developmental head start that will make them high-performers later.

While this idea may make intuitive sense, a new study from the University of California, Los Angeles (which has a reputation as a major power in collegiate athletics) suggests that the logic simply doesn’t hold true. In a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) in San Diego, Dr. John DiFiori, chief of sports medicine at UCLA’s School of Medicine, says that researchers can find no evidence that athletes who focused early on a single sport rose to elite levels in that sport.

To the contrary, most of the collegiate athletes surveyed were more like their peers, kids who enjoyed a wide range of recreational sports growing up, waiting until well into their teens before specializing on one sport. As DiFiori says, “Most successful athletes participate in a number of sports when they’re 6, 8 or 10 years old. That way, kids learn different skills and have the chance to discover which sport they truly enjoy.”

The study surveyed 296 male and female NCAA Division I athletes and found that 88% of them had participated in an average of two or three sports as children. In addition, 70% of them did not specialize in any one sport until after the age of 12. In a similar study on Olympic athletes, researchers found that most had participated in two or more sports before specializing.

While there are famous athletes like Tiger Woods or Andre Agassi who focused on one sport early in their lives, the research suggests that they are the exception and not the rule. The vast majority of successful collegiate or pro athletes dabbled in a number of other sports before settling on the one that brought them success. The data seems to indicate that early specialization may not help and may, in fact, be detrimental. Previous research has indicated, for example, that kids who train extensively in one sport are more prone to overuse injuries than kids who had more varied athletic experience, and played other sports as well. There’s also a greater risk of premature disengagement or “burn-out” that can come with focusing exclusively on one activity.

Based on this research, Dr. DiFiori feels that parents of kids who seem talented in one sport at an early age should allow and encourage them to play other sports. They may, after all, discover another sport that they enjoy more and are even better at. And—even if they do not—they will be exposed to sports that train them in a wider variety of motor skills. “Physical activity contributes to a happy and healthy childhood,” says Dr. DiFiori, “however, parents, coaches and children should monitor and measure their involvement level in a singular sport against the overall well-being and future success of the participant.”