Thursday 19 July 2018

How young is too young for the GYM

It used to be viewed as an adult space, but today you're just as likely to spot a teenager at the weights machine. Is this a welcome sign that our youngsters are getting more healthy, or could it be the start of a more worrying trend?

Problems can arise when youngsters attend the gym unsupervised
Problems can arise when youngsters attend the gym unsupervised
Children need to be supervised in the gym

Ailin Quinlan

You've lifted weights, sweated through 20 minutes on the treadmill and now it's time for the rowing machine. Or it would be, except a child appears to be using it.

Gyms were traditionally an adult space, but increasingly, whether or not adult members like it, facilities are being used by members as young as 13 or 14. The question is, do they know what they're doing? And more importantly, should they really be there in the first place?

Gym usage is getting younger, says fitness expert, personal trainer and Irish Independent columnist, Karl Henry.

"We're seeing 13, 14 and 15-year-olds who want to do weights," he says, adding however that at his own Dublin gym they operate an over-18s policy - a 14-year-old is "very young" for the gym environment, he says.

Children need to be supervised in the gym
Children need to be supervised in the gym

"At that young age young people really need to learn the techniques of exercise, how to do it properly," says Henry. "Technique is the key thing. This pushes it back on gym owners and instructors to ensure that they're getting the instruction - and that they're listening to it."

The Henry Fitness Centre on Dublin's Pembroke Street discontinued its pay-as-you-use policy, says Henry, because teenagers were "coming in and doing things wrong and not listening to advice".

"You have young fellas wanting access to machinery, doing things wrong and that is against our ethos," he says. "I've seen young teenagers working out in hotel gyms - 14 and 15-year-olds. You'd try to give them advice sometimes. Sometimes they'd listen, sometimes not."

If a child or young teenager is attending a gym, he believes, parents should be concerned about the level of expert instruction available and the amount of supervision provided by staff.

"If they're being looked after, it's fantastic. If they're learning, it's great, but if there's no support or instruction, that's a cause for concern - and parents should be concerned."

Young people are increasingly working out in the gym, agrees gym owner Jim O'Sullivan, who has been running the River's Edge facility in the heart of Cork city for 26 years.

When a young person's workout is based on a careful assessment of their needs and abilities and they're well-trained in the correct techniques and use of the equipment, he doesn't see a problem.

"We have quite a cross section of people coming in at that age group," he says, adding that the majority of these young gym members are deeply involved in sports and are engaged in a structured fitness programme recommended by a rugby, hockey or athletics coach.

"They'll come in and ask us to put together a programme to enhance their training. This could be Pilates or stretching or body-conditioning or body-weight training.

"They'll be booked in with one of our trainers and have an initial assessment. We'll make out a plan and coach them through it to make sure they're doing their exercises correctly," says O'Sullivan, adding that the gym also has young members with weight issues who need to take more regular exercise. They'd be assessed and would then follow a programme."

Cardiovascular classes are also very popular, he says, often with girls.

"They would use our Women's Only gym which is very popular, and again they'd have an assessment, get a programme and be supervised."

However, O'Sullivan emphasises, River's Edge does not operate a pay-as-you-use facility, under which young people could casually drop in to use the gym - because, he believes, that's where problems can start.

"That's where the big problem is, unless the club enforces a strict age policy along with it.

"You'll have lads coming into the gym and mimicking stuff they've seen on YouTube such as free-weight training like dead lifts, doing it without supervision and without proper instruction on the correct techniques.

"I know of situations where young people may be taking advantage of a pay-by-use facility in this way.

"They'll go in and train there. They're coming in unannounced and proper instruction on the correct techniques is not available because of the way they are accessing the gym."

This is relatively common, he adds, unless the gym has a specific age-restriction policy accompanying the pay-as-you-use facility.

There are clearly many benefits which accompany gym attendance for young people, but parents should be aware that there can also be a "constellation" of potentially problematic issues surrounding it, warns Dr Siobhan McArdle of the Department of Health and Human Performance at Dublin City University.

It's a good idea for parents to take the time to determine the motive behind a teen's gym attendance, she suggests.

Going to the gym can be completely innocuous, says McArdle, but she warns, while gym attendance might start merely as a bid to achieve improved fitness, over time this may change to a preoccupation with weight and shape control.

"If there is increased rigidity around diet or the fact that someone 'has' to go to the gym it could be indicative of compulsive behaviour," she warns, adding that this is often around weight and body fat issues for girls, while young males may have 'shape concern'.

"They believe they have to have a certain 'look', for example a strong upper body," says McArdle, who warns that there is a strong correlation with compulsive exercise, which in turn can lead to a preoccupation with diet and supplementation, and increase the risk of eating disorders.

If gym attendance is followed by changes in eating behaviour, such as cutting down on carbohydrates for example, it may be cause for concern, McArdle points out.

"There is so much societal pressure to be a certain weight for young people now," she says, pointing to the fact that many gyms have weighing scales, and, given the skimpy, revealing nature of gym clothing, ample opportunities to compare yourself to others.

McArdle echoes the concerns of Henry and O'Sullivan about the use of correct workout techniques.

"You can query whether there will be positive performance impact from what they are doing - for example, lifting very heavy weights to increase muscle mass.

"It's about how they're doing it. You have to learn how to lift weights and if the weight is too heavy you may injure yourself.

"I've seen young lads in the gym trying to lift very heavy weights without using the correct techniques. It has to be very carefully monitored."

Gym attendance by young people can become an issue when it involves youngsters who may have vulnerabilities around body image and eating, warns Harriet Parsons of Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland.

"They may start to use the gym in a way that is not focused on health and fitness," she says, adding that unsupervised use of weights and machines is not a good idea, while over-training and supplement-taking by young people can become a cause for concern.

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