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As the new school year starts and you're busy buying notebooks, backpacks, and clothes for your children, don't forget that what also should be high on your list is preparing your kids for that schoolyard kickball game.

Parents often struggle with which type of sport or exercise, and how much, is right for their kids. However, equally important to consider is getting them in shape with a general conditioning program to ensure safety and better performance.

The conditioning program should include a balance of cardiovascular endurance (aerobic activity), flexibility, and muscular strength, and should be adapted to fit your child's needs. To complete the program, be sure to work on each of the following fitness components:

Cardiovascular Training

It is vital to keep kids in shape for sports by making sure they're doing aerobic activities like walking, running, and swimming. Ideally, children (like adults) should be doing at least 30 minutes a day of a moderately intense physical activity. Those who are already more active may benefit from more vigorous exercise. The aerobic training should be strenuous enough for them to breathe harder without making them gasp for air or stop exercising.

Because children of various ages and stages of development differ in attention spans and physical abilities, you should let them gradually build up to this recommendation. Younger children may need to exercise in short, stop-and-go rounds similar to those that happen naturally in most sports activities.

Strength Training

Stronger muscles help kids improve their performance and protect them from injury. To strengthen muscles, kids need to do exercises that make the muscles contract by means of resistance. These types of exercises include weight-training or "body-weight" exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and tug-of-war.

Under the supervision of a trained adult, children can participate in a strength training program several days a week. Check with your child's doctor about what specific exercises are appropriate for your child.

Flexibility Training

Though most kids are pretty flexible, they should still stretch before and after sports or fitness activities to prevent injury. The best time to stretch is the cool-down period, after the kids have gradually slowed down at the end of their activity. During the cool-down they should stretch every major muscle group -- in particular, those they used most for the exercise. They should hold each stretch for 15 to 20 seconds.

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