What Makes Diet, Exercise, and Sleep So Important for Young Athletes?

Most people understand that diet and exercise are important parts of health, but growing research shows that sleep is just as important for a healthy lifestyle. While diet, exercise, and sleep are important for all of us, let's look at how they impact young athletes.

As kids grow up, they need certain diets, exercise habits, and sleep to ensure their growing bodies are getting what they need. However, it's also important to instill lasting lifestyle choices on them at a young age.


Keto, paleo, low-carb, intermittent fasting - the list of popular diets is endless. Food is fuel for young athletes to play and grow, so it's obviously important, but how do you know what to feed them? In the book "In Defense of Food" Michael Pollen wrote that we should "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This is a good guideline to follow, but what does it really mean?

By "eat food" he means to eat real food that you recognize where it came from. When you see an ear of corn you know it came from a field or when you see a chicken breast, you know it came from a chicken. These examples are real food and a lot easier to explain than where a Twinkie came from.

The "not too much" part gets a little trickier because nutrition needs change with age, gender, and activity level. Lucky for us, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has a handy chart here showing how many calories your youngster needs. 

"Mostly plants" is also pretty straightforward. This doesn't mean that everyone should be a vegetarian, however, it does mean that young athletes should have a healthy variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Plants tend to contain a lot of healthy stuff like fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are important for growth and development.


Young athletes should have no problem meeting the recommended exercise guidelines issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services, which is a minimum of  60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. Exercise is important for young people because it leads to lower body fat, and stronger bones and muscles. Exercise also has brain health benefits for school-aged children, including improved cognition (e.g., academic performance, memory) and reduced symptoms of depression. 


Sleep is important for everyone because chronically under-sleeping can lead to many health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, poor mental health, and a higher risk for injuries. For children in school, it also leads to difficulty paying attention and behavior problems. For young athletes, lack of sleep can lead to both a higher risk of injury and a decreased ability to heal after an injury. So, sleep is obviously important, but how much sleep do kids need?

  • 6 to 12-year-olds should sleep 9 to 12 hours per night

  • 13 to 18-year-olds should sleep 8 to 10 hours per night

Eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep will help your child grow and develop. It will also help keep them healthy now, and set them up with the tools to stay healthy later in life. On top of that, making healthy lifestyle choices helps kids do better in the classroom, and on the field or court. 

If you notice that your young athlete is complaining about pain during/after their games or practices, contact Performance Physical Therapy for an evaluation. Our physical therapists and athletic trainers are ready to help your athlete feel their best so they can play their best!

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