Why Study Pediatric Exercise Science?

By NASPEM Member, Dr. Karin Pfeiffer


The answer seems obvious to those in the field – because children are NOT miniature adults! Those wise words were imparted to us by our esteemed and revered predecessors, Per Olof Astrand, Oded Bar-Or, Bob Malina, Tom Rowland, Neil Armstrong, and others. In fact, please refer to another blog on the NASPEM website by Adam Baxter-Jones, who elaborates on this notion. And although this concept seems simple, it is much more complex than meets the eye.

Children are the future, and not just in Whitney Houston’s opinion. Although disease burden from issues such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and metabolic disorders often does not manifest until adulthood, the foundation begins during childhood. Physical activity is a preventative tool, and some evidence suggests that if habits are formed during childhood they are maintained into adulthood. Thus, encouraging children to be physically active can have benefits well beyond the childhood years in terms of morbidity and mortality.

It should also be noted that physical activity confers several other health benefits during the childhood and adolescent years. Improved mental health, cardiorespiratory fitness, and bone mineral density are a just a few of these benefits. Taken together, the message is clear that we can improve several aspects of health and lower disease burden in adults by getting youth to be physically active and maintain those levels.

Physical activity can take several forms and be experienced at various intensity levels. One component of physical activity is performing exercise, which is defined as “physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and designed to improve or maintain physical fitness, physical performance, or health” by the US Department of Health and Human Services in their Physical Activity Guidelines report document. Regardless of exactly how the physical activity is performed, decades of evidence show that many responses to physical activity/exercise are different in children and adolescents than in adults.

Early work in the field often directly compared child and adult responses to exercise, and in recent years work has focused solely on child/adolescent responses. Once we established that children and adults were different, it was necessary to discover the nuances of these differences. Given the relatively new age of our field and small proportion of researchers who are truly specializing in pediatrics, much work remains to be explored in pediatric exercise science. This means there are several interesting avenues of research left to pursue.

Don’t get me wrong – there are also some challenges. But the challenges are what makes our work fun and interesting. In what other field can you convince a 3-yr-old to wear a portable metabolic analyzer by asking them to pretend to be a scuba diver, firefighter, or superhero? Or by putting a similar analyzer on their stuffed Tigger? Although creativity is often a part of many types of research, it seems to be a crucial element of pediatric exercise science. And really the best part is that you often get to act like a kid yourself – on purpose in a professional setting!

I always say (and it’s true) that I don’t know very much about adults, aside from the fact that I’m supposed to be one. People who study pediatric exercise are fun, compassionate, and possess fantastic people skills. It is a wonderful research community, and the camaraderie one experiences as a NASPEM member, combined with the excellent research being performed by other members, make it a unique organization. You are missing out if you aren’t a member! Join NASPEM today!

Karin Allor Pfeiffer, PhD, FACSM, is a Professor of Kinesiology and a member of the Center for Activity and Health at Michigan State University. Dr. Pfeiffer has an interest in population-based investigations and her research focuses on childhood physical activity.

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