Teddy Ain’t Heavy Enough 

It doesn’t take a $20,000 metabolic unit to figure out that exercise is good for kids

Attention parents: researchers at Indiana State University believe that your young children will get stronger—and stay trimmer—if they play with weighted toys.
Attention parents: researchers at Indiana State University believe that your young children will get stronger—and stay trimmer—if they play with weighted toys. If you love your children, you need to get yourself down to the toy store today, buy a beefy teddy bear for your baby, and pick up some hefty blocks for your toddler. Maybe, just maybe, those toys will keep your children from growing little baby beerbellies and thunder thighs. This exciting news comes from ISU’s John Ozmun, a professor of physical education, and Lee Robbins, a recently graduated master’s student. In their recent study, the pair found that children who “interacted with weighted cardboard blocks experienced a significant increase in energy expenditure, heart rate, respiration and muscle activity.” With all due respect to Ozmun and Robbins, I could’ve told you that would happen. And I could’ve done it empirically, without strapping a $20,000 “metabolic unit”—a facemask, a hose and a gadget that looks like Batman’s utility belt—to the children. I would’ve summed up the research by saying something like, “Look, their little faces are red, they’ve got some beads of sweat on their foreheads and they’re breathing hard. If they keep this up a little longer, we won’t have a bit of trouble getting them down for their naps.” Remarkably, one of Ozmun and Robbins’ experiments roughly duplicated an experiment designed by my father, Jabo Jowers, who had just a fourth-grade education. In the ISU experiment, five boys and five girls, ages 6 to 8, carried weighted cardboard blocks from one side of the lab to the other. The work made them tired. In the Jabo experiment, my half-brother Geames, age about 14, moved a big stack of bricks from one corner of the yard to another. The work made him tired. Geames repeated the experiment every day for several weeks. Eventually, Geames broke protocol and started hurling one brick a day into the swamp that bordered the Jowers property. Because of the brick moving—and the brick throwing—Geames’ strength, stamina and ingenuity increased, as Jabo had intended. So Jabo pronounced the experiment a success, and hauled off the few remaining bricks himself. When I was about 10 years old, Jabo assigned me an experiment. “Take this axe, boy,” Jabo said, “and cut down that poplar tree by the creek.” The poplar was about 30 feet tall and 15 inches across, but I got it down in a couple days. Not only did I build some muscle and endurance; I also proved that I was smart enough to cut the tree so that it didn’t fall on me or the house. In case you’re wondering, the tree didn’t really need to come down. According to Jabo, I just needed some work to do. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s better to give children a strenuous job now and then than it is to give them weighted-down teddy bears. There are exceptions, of course. Children with illnesses that cause strength and balance problems need all the help they can get. I’m talking about healthy children who have no physical limitations. It was just a few years ago that people were all upset about schoolchildren getting hurt by their backpacks. The backpacks were too heavy, people said, and children were sustaining injuries because of it. The Consumer Products Safety Commission published a report that said 12,688 children were injured by backpacks during 1999 and 2000. That’s 35.24 kids going down with a backpack injury every school day. Well don’t you know, it turned out that most of the backpack injuries were head injuries, caused when children picked up their backpacks and started clobbering other children in the head. Behind head injuries came hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder and foot/ankle injuries, caused when children fell over backpacks. You know what’ll happen if we start giving little kids weighted teddy bears? They’ll start beating their preschool-mates over the head with them, just like the older kids did with their backpacks. If you want your kids to be strong enough to swing a backpack—and coordinated enough to avoid tripping over one—take them outside and teach them a game. I suggest classic American games—baseball, softball, football, basketball or track and field. Sure, you can steer your kids into playing soccer, but you can save the cost of a ball if you just let them run around and play tag. Once you take away the ball, tag is just like soccer except that tag is fun to watch. Here’s another good way to upgrade your kids’ fitness level: make them cut the grass all summer while they’re out of school, loafing and getting soft. And when I say cut the grass, I mean push a lawn mower, not ride a lawn mower. In case you’re wondering, I do offer daughter Jess the opportunity to keep in shape by cutting the Jowers grass. She’s been doing it since she was old enough to reach the handle, and I do believe it’s done her some good. 

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