High blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, obesity: In his job as co-director of the Mayo Clinic's Sports Medicine Center, Dr. Ed Laskowski sees them all. Even more alarming, though, is the fact that Laskowski isn't talking about adult patients. He's talking about children.
"Years ago, kids were just more active," Laskowski says. "They may not have been on a traveling soccer team, but they just spent more time outside playing."
By now it's no no secret that most kids aren't getting as much physical activity as they need. Both First Lady Michelle Obama and the National Football League have launched well-publicized campaigns to encourage children-and their parents-to get moving.
There's good reason, Laskowski says. An overweight child has a 70-80 percent chance of turning into an obese adult, thereby increasing his or her risk of developing myriad chronic ailments.
While incorporating physical activity can be as simple as taking time for a walk or a pickup game of basketball in the driveway, busy routines and unpredictable Chicago weather can get in the way of even the most well-intentioned families. What's more, it's not always safe to roam the neighborhood after school, looking for friends who like to shoot hoops.
A sport or organized physical activity can turn into a regular routine, one of the keys to accomplishing anything in a busy family.
"Sports are the outdoor classroom of life," says John Engh, chief operating officer of the National Alliance for Youth Sports. "Sports help form children's attitudes, mold their values and define their character. They teach the importance of teamwork, playing by the rules, handling winning with class and losing with dignity."
Here are some tips for introducing your child to a new sport-and reaping some of those benefits in the process.
Should your kids learn to dribble a basketball or do a cartwheel? If they are old enough to make an informed decision, let them choose, says Leah Friedman, director of junior development for Chicago's Midtown Tennis Club.
"It's never a good idea to force your kids to do something," she says. "Kids will tell you what they want to do."
Attend a game or match at a local college or high school to get a first-hand glimpse of how different sports are played, Friedman suggests, and whether they might be a good fit for your family. In many cases, admission to these events is inexpensive or even free.
If your child needs help choosing, consider her personality. Is she an extrovert who would thrive as part of a team or an introvert who'd prefer to lose herself underwater in the private world of a swimming pool?
In Minnesota, where Laskowski and his family live, "hockey is huge," he says, but that doesn't mean it's right for everyone. His two daughters didn't want to play or join the neighborhood soccer team. But they were riveted when a North Carolina clogger moved to town and began offering Irish dance lessons.
"That's what they're wired to do and they get great exercise in the process," he says.
Once you and your child have tentatively settled on a sport, check out coaches and practices. Look for a positive environment and responsible adults who value each child's contribution. Ask whether each player gets equal playing time.
Summer camps or sports sampler programs offered at health clubs and by park districts can be good, inexpensive ways to check out a variety of sports, suggests Kristy Roherty, the Elmhurst YMCA's sports director.
Roherty often allows new students to try the first class for free. It doesn't hurt to ask about this policy, she says. "Sometimes one class is all you need to see that something is right-or not right-for you."
When considering the options, give thought to unconventional choices. The most popular sport in your town may not fit your child. Béa Rashid, director of Dance Center Evanston, was never interested in team sports as a child, but found her lifelong calling in a dance studio.
An example of thinking outside the box: Her Evanston studio's offerings include a popular "Just for Boys" class, designed to introduce male movers to a variety of dance styles, including classical and hip-hop.
You've never made a layup, done a plié or studied tae kwon do. Think you have nothing to teach your kids? Wrong, says Cheryl Richardson, senior manager of physical education for the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
Richardson says the worse you are at a sport, the better it actually can be for your child's learning curve. Seeing a parent struggle to master new skills can be confidence boosting for kids-and hilarious for the entire family.
Listen at practice to see what's being covered, or ask the coach for skills to practice. Invite a teammate over for a "practice playdate" to work on new techniques or have your athlete try teaching the sport to a younger sibling.
Learning a new skill can be an intimidating experience. Seeing that you are willing to put ego aside and try with them might just give your children the encouragement they need.
Richardson coached basketball for 13 years and played at the college level. So she was dismayed when her two children cried in the car on the way to their basketball practice, even though they had agreed to play.
"Look for something positive about the activity," she says, "even if it's just the after-game snack or the fun time spent with friends."
While Richardson's children have never become elite athletes, they still love to play informal games with friends.
During practice and at games, keep things fun and low-key by refusing to buy into competitive hype, says Engh.
Informal neighborhood and health club leagues or intramural organizations often provide a friendly environment where children of all levels can learn to play.
"Children at the beginning levels of sports need supportive parents who are more concerned with making sure they have fun and less concerned with how many goals they've scored or the number of hits they've collected," Engh says.
Kari Richardson is a freelance writer who lives in Naperville with her husband, 7-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.