Teaching Healthy Kids about Healthy Muscles

by Beth Cline

As children learn about sports and exercise, they will, no doubt, become curious about how their body accomplishes kicking a soccer ball, throwing a football or running on a track.  It is helpful, and important, to teach children about how their muscles and body work in order to help prevent injuries, learn to eat healthy, and value the benefits of exercise.

For child athletes, the muscular system is a great place to start.  The human body has more than 600 muscles, allowing it to do everything from pump blood to the heart, to lift a backpack, to smile and blink.  Muscles are made of tissue that can shorten when receiving a signal from the brain. Muscles cannot push, only pull, and therefore, most are found in pairs to pull one way and then the other pair pulls it back the other way.  For example, if a child wiggles their fingers, one set of muscles pulls them down, the other pulls them back up.   

Muscles are divided into three main categories: skeletal, smooth and cardiac.

  • Skeletal: Skeletal muscles help the body move and support the skeleton.  These make up roughly 50% of body weight.  Skeletal muscles are composed of long muscle fibers that link two bones together over the connecting joint.  As these muscles shorten, or contract, the bones move.
  • Smooth: Smooth muscles are the second type of muscle tissue, made fibrous layers, each with a different orientation. This allows the muscle to contract in any direction.  These are found in hollow places in the body such as internal organs, arteries, veins and even the digestive track. 
  • Cardiac: These are the muscles that create the tissue in the wall of the heart, called the myocardium.  Cardiac muscle is attached to other muscle, instead of to the bone like skeletal muscles, in order to contract and squeeze the walls of the heart (to pump blood).  The roughly 100,000 heartbeats an average person as a day, are made possible by the cardiac muscles.

There are also two types of muscles: voluntary and involuntary. 

  • Voluntary muscles are controllable by signals from the brain. Skeletal muscles are voluntary, including those muscles in the arms and legs. 
  • Involuntary muscles encompass both smooth and cardiac muscles.  The brain instructs these muscles without actively having to think about it. This is how the hard pumps non-stop and the digestive system processes food into energy. 

Once children know more about how their muscles work, parents can take the opportunity to remind them how to keep their muscles healthy and injury free.  Muscles need energy from the blood to work properly. This energy is provided in part by oxygen but also by eating the right foods. If muscles cannot get the energy they require, it can lead to uncomfortable and even painful cramping and spasms.   

“Kids need a foundation of healthy foods to build and maintain muscle mass, and recover from daily activities,” explains Lisa Dorfman, Sports Nutritionist and Registered Dietitian.  “Most kids can meet their daily energy needs by eating three meals and two snacks each day. The meals should consist of lean protein such as chicken, fish or low fat dairy, whole grains that also include starchy vegetables such as peas, corn and beans, and colorful vegetables whenever possible. Snack times are great opportunities to eat fresh fruit with yogurt dip, fruit smoothies or frozen whole fruit pops.” 

Children should also remember to stretch their muscles before physical activity to keep them loose and limber. This helps to increase the muscle’s ability to pull safely aiding participation a given activity.  If a muscle is not fully lengthened and warm, and is suddenly forced to fully extend, it can cause tearing or ripping within the muscle.  

Try teaching about other systems in the body in addition to muscles.  Make learning more enjoyable for children by taking advantage of interactive opportunities. A few hands on suggestions include:  

  • Take older children to visit traveling exhibits like Blood and Guts, designed by the National Children’s Museum (www.ncm.museum ). This includes introductions to how the body works, from bones to muscles, and even circulation. “Kids can learn how the heart works and how much blood our bodies hold through theBlood and Guts exhibit,” said Ariel Moyer, Director of Communications for the National Children’s Museum. “They can also learn how all their organs fit inside their body, examine how lungs are affected by smoking, and study a piece of a real human brain!”
  • For younger children, play a game like Operation. The nearly 30-year old game helps children understand where the very basic bones and muscles are in the body, while testing their motor skills in a fun manner.
  • Many online sites include games and challenges to help children learn about systems in the body. A simple website search will produce numerous suggestions. Trywww.KidsHealth.org/Kids/   orwww.yucky.kids.discovery.com.  

The next time children are curious how the can improve their athletic skills or run a little faster, take the opportunity to teach them more about their muscles and body.

Articles in the Healthy Kids Series are presented by the Marine Corps Marathon Healthy Kids Fun held annually in October. Visitwww.marinemarathon.com.   Beth Cline is the Public Relations Coordinator for the Marine Corps Marathon. No federal or Marine Corps endorsement implied.

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