Core strength: How it may be impacting your child

Many adults are familiar with the concept of core strength; whether it’s mentioned by your chiropractor, or your trainer at the gym says it’s an area you need to work on. Even when it’s not top of mind, you’ve likely made a conscious effort before to correct your posture or found yourself uncomfortable when needing to sit in a chair or stand for long periods of time.

Similarly, children can have these same issues.

What is it?

Core strength refers to the underlying strength of the muscles of a person’s trunk (stomach and back). These muscles are categorized as flexor muscles – those in the front that allow us to bend over – and extensor muscles – those in the back that are responsible for an upright posture.

How do we develop core strength?

Children build core strength (and overall body strength) by doing lots of repetitious exercise, including unstructured play. Some examples are:

  • Riding a bike
  • Climbing ladders, slides, stairs, rocks and trees
  • Pumping on the swings at the playground
  • Running (through the grass, snow, sand, mud, etc.)
  • Swimming, splashing and treading water in the pool

Spontaneous gross motor play is important for developing core strength and aids overall strength and motor skills.

Does my child need to further develop their core strength?

There are many signs of weak core strength that you likely can spot just by watching your child play on a daily basis. See below for some of the most common signs to be on the lookout for.

  • Frequent slumping, fidgeting, or leaning on one hand
    • Children may be almost falling out of their chair or constantly fidgeting, which can lead to behavioral issues in school, or other settings. This can include the inability to sit still.
  • Some children may exhibit what is known as “W-sitting.” This means sitting with their knees bent to either side of their body, creating a “W” shape with their legs. This position helps kids achieve a wider base of support and a lower center of gravity, providing better stability for their trunk when the core muscles aren’t able to.
    • This position puts children at greater risk for hip dysplasia (the ball of the bone not creating a deep socket in the joint which may result in dislocation). If your child sits in this position, encourage them to sit with their legs crossed or with their legs straight in front of them. Read more about hip dysplasia here.

How does lacking core strength impact daily function?

If a child is unable to maintain an upright posture, they are unable to use their hands and fingers efficiently for fine motor tasks. Children lacking core strength may have trouble with activities, such as picking up and manipulating small objects, writing letters and numbers with control and accuracy and using scissors to cut in a line.

When children have to use brain power to focus on staying upright, it may distract them and be difficult for them to focus on instruction in school or other structured settings. In some cases, weak core strength and poor posture may result in structural conditions, such as scoliosis.

What it typical for my child’s age group?

Having your child maintain a plank position (laying on the ground, pushed up on toes and elbows, so that entire body is off the ground) is a quick and easy way to determine if their core strength is appropriate for their age. See below for the amount of time a child should be able to stay in this position, depending on their age:

* Toddlers (ages 3 and under) are still developing core strength through play, so data does not exist for this age range.

  • 4 years old – 10 seconds
  • 5 years old – 20 seconds
  • 6 years old – 30 seconds
  • 7 years old – 40 seconds
  • 8 years old – 50 seconds
  • 9 years old – one minute
  • 10 years old – one minute, 10 seconds
  • 11 years old – one minute, 20 seconds

What do I do if my child has weak core strength?

If you suspect your child has weak core strength and it is impacting them on a regular basis, talk to your pediatrician. If necessary, your pediatrician will refer you to an occupational therapist (OT). An OT will assist your family in establishing an exercise routine to assist with strengthening your child’s core strength. Other aspects of function that may be impacted by a weak core will also be evaluated.

Can I work on strengthening my child’s core at home?

Yes, there are many ways you can work with your child at home to improve their core strength. Here are a few activities to get you started.

  • Decrease screen time and increase unstructured gross motor play – Put down the screen (cell phone, tablet, watching TV, video games, etc.) and go outside to play! Running around, swinging and climbing activities all require a child to engage their core muscles.
  • Tummy time – Although this is an activity associated with babies, it is important for people of all ages. If an older child is laying on their stomach and using their arms to hold themselves up, they are also using (and strengthening) their back muscles.
  • Sit on an exercise ball or wobble stool while eating dinner, reading a book or watching TV – Utilizing one of these items can engage your child’s core strength muscles because it makes them work to maintain an upright position.

To learn more about exercises you can do with your child at home to strengthen their core, check out this website.

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