More than 25 million Americans put on winter coats, laced up their boots and strapped themselves into skis or snowboards last winter, says the consumer snow sports organization SnowSports Industries America. And countless children slid down hills on sleds.
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All three of these popular winter activities — skiing, snowboarding and sledding — are great ways for your kids to stay fit and active during the cold months.
“Cross-country skiing probably has the most benefits for your cardiovascular system in terms of keeping your heart and lungs in good shape,” says orthopaedic specialist Morgan Jones, MD.
Sledding, with the constant walking and lugging of a sled, also gives your kids a great workout.
“Any time kids can get out and play, it is a benefit,” Dr. Jones says. And it’s great for their overall health.”
When and how to start your kids
While some kids as young as 18 months can be seen on bunny hills and slopes, most ski instructors recommend starting children sometime between ages 3 and 6.
Some experts recommend starting kids young because their small stature and adaptability make it easier for them to learn this physically demanding sport. Kids can start on cross-country trails at around the same age, but cross-country skiing tends to be a bit more tedious and kids don’t always like it when they’re very young.
Wait a few years more when it comes to snowboarding, as kids often have trouble getting the mechanics before age 5 or 6, Dr. Jones says.
When your kids are ready to hit the slopes or the trails, it’s a good idea to invest in lessons, Dr. Jones says. While you can help them, children in any sport tend to learn best with seasoned professionals and a group of their peers.
Another good idea to prepare your children for winter sports is to spend time doing a variety of activities, such as sledding or even building a snowman. This can help kids get used to the snow and cold, and gives you a chance to make sure their clothes and equipment fit properly.
Follow safety precautions
Like any physical activity, outdoor winter sports can pose a risk of injury. While traumatic injuries do occur, they happen less often than you may think. Usually, snow sports become dangerous only when kids don’t follow safety precautions.
Injury prevention is best achieved through a combination of proper use of equipment, proper training and proper technique, Dr. Jones says.
“Be sure your children are in good physical condition and tell them to learn the proper technique from their instructor before they try something new,” he says.
Alpine skiing carries an injury risk of about two injuries per 1,000 skier days, says a 2012 study by the American Journal of Sports Medicine. In other words, for every 1,000 people skiing on any particular day, two will sustain an injury that requires medical attention. For snowboarding, the rate is slightly higher.
Cross country skiers — children and adults — are most prone to overuse injuries, although downhill skiers also are at risk.
“This is especially true when people travel for a ski vacation and spend several days skiing at a pretty high intensity when it’s something that they aren’t accustomed to doing on a regular basis,” Dr. Jones says.
Muscular pain throughout the leg and knee pain are common in downhill skiing, and overuse injuries tend to occur more often in the lower body. Upper body overuse injuries are more common for cross-country skiers because they use their shoulders and elbows far more intensely than downhill skiers.
Some of the more common traumatic injuries associated with skiing include ligament tears around the knee, such as ACL or MCL injuries. Fractures have been greatly reduced, thanks to improving technology. The development of release bindings — which automatically release the ski from the boot in the event of a fall — has been very successful in reducing the incidence of fractures.
Head injuries are possible for skiers, of course, and there has been a big push for skiers and snowboarders to wear helmets more consistently. Children also need to learn to read and follow the posted safety rules when skiing.
Snowboarding presents its own set of injury issues. Ankle and wrist injuries, for example, are a lot more common for snowboarders.
“Ankle injuries are common because of the way the boots are anchored to the board,” Dr. Jones says. “Wrist injuries also are more common because kids don’t have poles, so they break falls with their arms and hands.”
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