A Finnish youngster–mollycoddle or steel?

A phenomenon among parents today is to banish the educational responsibility out of the house. Shortcuts to success are offered for young people, but the road to success is long and rocky, and there aren’t any instant prizes. Some parents think that it is the team’s or the school’s fault if an athlete doesn’t become successful. Also, the doctor is to blame for wounds that don’t heal fast enough. It is worth noting that activities outside the home are just the tip of the iceberg. The road to becoming a top athlete requires the right lifestyle choices outside practices as well. Schools and teams distribute information about nutrition, but the most important choices are made at home, i.e. regarding bedtime, the contents of the fridge and self-training.

There are several ongoing discussions regarding how much or little young people exercise and how much they should sport in order to stay healthy. We know that a significant part of adolescents don’t exercise enough. This number has grown further in the age of computers and virtual realities. The amount of inactive people increases as the age reaches puberty. This is the age where Finnish young people are passed by other countries in terms of activity. Inactivity affects public health, which in turn strains the wallet and waist of way too many people.

The mobility of young people has polarized. Some exercise too much on their free time and some don’t do sports at all. Some bury themselves on the sofa with an iPad, while some train through the night instead of sleeping. So what is the right activity level? How can repetitive stress injuries be avoided? How do you treat damages and injuries that have already happened?

Being a sports doctor, most of my patients are adolescent athletes. Many of them seek medical help after a total halt caused by too much training. Usually it’s not the amount of training that is wrong, but rather, the unfavourable living habits. An adequate amount of sleep and the right kind of nutrition are important for young people.

A lot of sporting young people don’t sleep enough. Mobile phone games and messaging with friends shortens the amount of sleep so that there is not enough time for recovery in the circadian rhythm. If the body doesn’t get enough rest and recovery, it cannot take advantage of the stimulants introduced by the training. This leads to two fundamental problems: a tired body and lesser results from the training. Tiredness results in under-recovery and over-activation of the neural system, which creates physical and mental symptoms, such as increased heart rate, nausea, difficulties in concentrating and mood swings. It is sometimes hard to distinguish the symptoms from normal teen age development, but a regular sleep pattern and a training diary helps monitor the recovery.

An adolescent body is susceptible to repetitive stress injuries. A growing young person is not a small-sized adult, neither does he have the prerequisites to train like a full-fledged athlete. Adolescents’ strains are usually targeted at the bones and their growth areas. Stress fractures occurring in primary school, persons in growth spurt suffering from overtraining and tired secondary school students; these are the everyday life of today’s young people. Apophysis, stress fracture and ostheocondritis are overexertion injuries typical for active young people. In these the stress wears down the points of the bone where the muscles are attached, resulting in the development of painful stress changes. Healing from these requires adequate resting, which usually means that the training must be stopped for at least a few consecutive weeks. It is important to intervene in time to repetitive stress injuries. A sporting young person does not always know what normal soreness is and what points to the development of a stress injury. Young persons don’t want to skip practices either, in which case the lack of experience in estimating one’s abilities and sensations combined with training enthusiasm delays the start of the rehabilitation from the stress injury.

A common question is: how much can a young person train? Several factors affect this and there is no common rule. The amount of training suitable depends on the exercising and training background, the sport and its contents, and individual properties such as physical features or whether or not a growth stage is in progress. Living habits have a great influence on how the body adjusts to hard training. A varied diet, the right kind of hydration, good quality training, adequate resting days and the amount of sleep support the training and recovery. This is all the responsibility of the home. Even the simplest things ease the monitoring of the young athlete’s development, for example following up on the length at home, which helps assess the progression of the growth and susceptibility to certain types of injuries. A muscle balance test performed by a physiotherapist helps prevent injuries and absorb an improper performance technique.

Sporting is sometimes dangerous, but inactivity is even more dangerous. An active young person needs support and guidance for his training, and an everyday life that supports it. A basic task of parents is to point out safe limits for descendants, even if they are a letdown. The parents’ task is to define when the descendant goes to sleep and what he eats. It is important to further develop the cooperation between the home, the school and the coaching party in order to create optimal surroundings for the young person to grow and develop in. My task as a sports doctor who has seen several young people is to provide the right diagnosis and treatment, but also to turn an illness into a positive learning experience.