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Edge at an early age

Depending on the child, supplement use can help or hinder weight training

Posted: August 5, 2009 9:55 p.m.
Updated: August 6, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Children are taking more supplements at younger ages.

 
It’s red, yellow and blue, and made of foam and plastic.

A picture of the product depicts a young child having fun.

This toy, available online through major toy distributors, is a weight set.

The item triggers questions — not about the toy itself, but about society’s desire to give children a competitive edge.

That edge may include the introduction of supplements to aid in the training process.

High school athletes are encouraged to weight train.

But when do children start weight training and using supplements? What is age appropriate?

Opinions differ.

The Signal randomly sampled five stores that sell exercise supplements in the Santa Clarita Valley and collected the recommendations of industry professionals.

The consensus?

Athletes are beginning to use supplements as early as 14 years old, but each child should be looked at on a case-by-case basis in regards to both supplements and weight training.

Each store contacted noted that as children begin to transition into high school, the addition of supplements, such as protein, is commonly added to the diet.

“Kids are trying not to lose weight because of the hard practices,” noted one of the store representatives, referring to football.

Two facilities reported that the youngest age of use they have seen was 14, two were 15 and one was 16.

The underlying theme in all five conversations was that at young ages, natural is the key factor.

One of the facilities stated that products such as multivitamins and fish oils should be the extent of supplement use for athletes younger than 14.

After all, there are concerns involved with using supplements.

As of 1994, the Food and Drug Administration no longer became “responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement is safe before it is marketed” as per the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, according to the FDA’s official Web site.

The explanation continues: “FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market. Generally, manufacturers do not need to register their products with the FDA nor get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements. Manufacturers must make sure that product label information is truthful and not misleading.”

It is an athlete’s — and potentially the athlete’s parent’s — responsibility to fact check to determine the credibility of references and information and make sure to read labels.

But studies have found inaccuracies in labeling. That is why such companies as General Nutrition Centers market truth in labeling as one of their primary selling points.

GNC’s corporate offices declined to comment for this story.

That said, and despite the fact that the FDA investigates supplements once they hit the market, it is entirely possible that a dangerous product could find its way into the mainstream.

“I don’t advocate the use of any supplements for enhancement of sports performance,” says Dr. Paul Horowitz of Discovery Pediatrics in Valencia. “An appropriate diet should be able to provide all the nutrition a young athlete should require.”

No matter the athlete’s age, the FDA recommends watching out for products that tout wide-spread success, use buzz words such as “breakthrough” and “miraculous,” have undocumented case history, or whose selling points ares based on limited availability and no-risk guarantees.

One local pediatrician says usage in the Santa Clarita Valley tends to be going down, at least with one prominent supplement — creatine.

“Haven’t seen much supplement use lately,” says Dr. Morris Yen of Santa Clarita Pediatrics in an e-mail to The Signal. “We used to see children on creatine powder but not recently.”

According to Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning released in conjunction with the National Strength and Conditioning Association, saturation limits on creatine exist in the muscles, so when the “more is better mentality” creeps into the mind, excess levels of the compound sit dormant with no effect.

Naturally produced in the body and present in meat and fish, too much creatine can lead to dehydration and muscle injuries if the athlete does not drink enough water.

In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes younger than 18 years old not use creatine, despite the potential short-term advantages it presents for strength training.

Not much is known about the potential effects of creatine on young children.

“We still don’t know about its safety on children,” says Dr. Lyle Micheli, director of sports medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston, the primary pediatric clinic for Harvard Medical School, where he also serves as an associate clinical professor. “There haven’t been studies on it, and one wouldn’t get approved. It is a catch-22. Could it be safe? Perhaps, we just don’t know.”

The implication is that a child’s health would be put at risk in order to adequately determine the product’s safely for youth users.
Micheli is a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Both Micheli and Dr. Mininder S. Kocher, a colleague in the division of sports medicine at the hospital, agree that the best route for a developing athlete is through the basics.

“I think that if the kids are in a rational exercise program and have a balanced nutritional diet, supplements aren’t going to help them very much,” Kocher says. “There is some data that suggests that some, like creatine powers and protein powders can help short bursts of energy that can help with training. It is a small benefit, but if the kids really wants to do something, I would steer them to the things that are fairly innocuous.”

Even using supplements, the athlete must exercise in order to see any potentially positive effects.

When it comes to weight training, the question of “When?” is a grey area, says Robert dos Remedios.

The strength and conditioning coach at the College of the Canyons since 1998 and the author of Men’s Health Power Training: Build Bigger, Stronger Muscles through Performance-Based Conditioning, has been in the business of training athletes for over 20 years.

When it comes down to it, there is no baseline age when it is appropriate to start a workout regimen. Each child has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

However, the correct workout is essential.

“My theory is, we end up specializing too young, and (kids) are not well-rounded physically,” dos Remedios says.

Therefore, if children are going to begin weight training at an early age, the most advantageous workout is a general one.
Medical opinion in the valley is concurrent.

“Modest weight training can safely begin even in the very young,” Horowitz says. “Appropriate weights, techniques, and training plans with opportunities for rebuilding tissues are mandatory, but if appropriately planned and supervised, children as young as 6 or 7 can learn to enjoy some of the benefits of weight training.”

The ideal camp includes such things as running, jumping and stopping, the elements of fitness that will help strengthen the young athlete most effectively with his or her still-developing body, says dos Remedios.

It is critical, though, that workouts be individualized to each child.

“Not all strength and conditioning is the same, and the best advice is that you need to do the right things,” says Dr. David McAllister, the chief of sports medicine in orthopaedic surgery at the UCLA Medical Center. He noted that problems arise when athletes do too much (overuse), not enough or incorrect exercises/techniques.

“One of the problems I see as a physician is that kids have been told what is good for the football player is good for them (no matter what they play),” McAllister says. “The goal is that it needs to be focused for the individual, for the age level and the sport they play.”

And the reality is that some children mature more quickly and are ready to take on more rigorous training programs at an earlier age than others.

Therefore, it is critical that parents and their athletes select the correct camps and strength and conditioning programs, says dos Remedios.

Whether addressing supplements or weight training, the potential ramifications span both ends of the spectrum.

These decisions are not to be taken lightly, particularly for athletes at young ages, so the consensus is to check with a doctor.

Regardless, the discussion as a whole begs the question, what is one willing to risk to achieve a competitive edge?

After all, the reality of the supplement argument is that quantitative evidence in regards to children is difficult to come by.

“That is the hidden story because people aren’t coming forward and volunteering if their kids are on supplements,” Micheli says.

All five stores surveyed noted that based on customer traffic, the majority of supplements are purchased by the athlete’s parents.

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