All Blacks coach to Kiwi kids: 'don’t sit, squat'

Lucas Maihi (4) squats on the wall at Auckland's Mission Bay on Boxing Day while mother Nadia Maihi looks on.

Lucas Maihi (4) squats on the wall at Auckland's Mission Bay on Boxing Day while mother Nadia Maihi looks on.

For many Kiwis, sitting cross-legged on a mat in front of teacher at primary school is seared into our memories of childhood.

For generations, it was part of our first experience outside the family home and away from mum and dad.

But the days of crossing legs in school may be numbered if All Blacks strength and conditioning coach Nic Gill has his way.

The full squat: Zac Fogarty (8) and Grayce Gill improve their ankle, hip and thoracic mobility.
Nic Gill

The full squat: Zac Fogarty (8) and Grayce Gill improve their ankle, hip and thoracic mobility.

It's not that sitting cross-legged is bad, Gill said. It's actually quite good. However, cross-legged sitting has replaced a range of other possible postures, such as squatting, that would help kids develop flexibility and movement, especially during periods of rapid growth.

Gill, who has won an international reputation for his focus on the simple things in training the All Blacks, said he is not trying to develop Olympic champions with these ideas, just helping people lead healthier, more active lives with fewer unexpected injuries.

"I remember as a kid sitting cross-legged for hours a day," he said. "Typically the areas you lose range of motion from is your hips, hence we get sore backs - our thoracic spine - then we get sore necks and shoulders."

Zac Fogarty (8) and Grayce Gill (10) demonstrate the kneeling squat for quad stretching and ankle and hip mobility
Nic Gill

Zac Fogarty (8) and Grayce Gill (10) demonstrate the kneeling squat for quad stretching and ankle and hip mobility

Ankles are an issue too, the father of two said. Lack of motion in ankles leads to sore knees.

"I've done work with quite a few teenage kids over the years and I suppose the common theme I see is young people go through a couple of growth spurts," he said.

"What I'm keen on doing it educating people on how to improve their motion through these spurts."

Nic Gill coaches Grayce Gill (10) in the "super-crossed legs" position for improved ankle and hip mobility.
Nic Gill

Nic Gill coaches Grayce Gill (10) in the "super-crossed legs" position for improved ankle and hip mobility.

Gill, who is also an associate professor at AUT University, is suggesting what is often called "incidental" exercise, something that can be built into an everyday routine.

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"You're actually not changing it too much, just tweaking it," he said.

"You can go onto one knee and kneel and tuck one foot under your butt - a half squat. That improves the range of motion in your hip and the range of motion of your ankle.

The tough one: Zac Fogarty (8) and Grayce Gill (10) exercise glutes, hips and lower back with the "foot in mouth" stretch.
Nic Gill

The tough one: Zac Fogarty (8) and Grayce Gill (10) exercise glutes, hips and lower back with the "foot in mouth" stretch.

"Most people our age can't do it any more and haven't been able to do it since they were thirteen."

Frances Nelson, president of the Auckland Primary Principals' Association, said schools are already adopting a range of strategies to vary children's posture including stand-up desks.

"For kids to be at their best you can't have them sitting on their bottoms with their legs crossed on the floor," Neslon said.

"Let's hear about it. If it's going to do any good for kids, if we can add it to our repertoire, we want to know about it."

Auckland mum Nadia Maihi's four-year-old son, Lucas, is gearing up to start school in February. 

When asked to sit in a "mat-time" pose, Lucas sank into a frog-like position, with the soles of his feet together and knees spread apart. 

He said it was pretty comfy. 

Maihi said the idea of letting kids free-style how they sit at school could be great.

"It's funny, we talked about that just yesterday - I was sitting with Lucas when he was playing with Lego and he was sort of crouching. I tried but I couldn't do it.

"If it's to help the children, I would be all for it. I think it's a good idea."

It's been a busy year for Gill with the Rugby World Cup, but he has still managed to take his ideas to schools and conferences, helping teachers find ways to add value to the health of their kids.

At one recent gym session, he asked a group of six-, seven- and eight-years-olds to see if they could get a foot in their mouth.

"So they were rolling around on the floor having an absolute ball," he said. "Then I told them to go home and ask their mum and dads to do it."

Most would never get anywhere near to it.

There is a growing understanding of the long-term benefits of improved fitness in children. In 2013, following widespread fears of a growing obesity epidemic, the British Journal of Sports Medicine said the lack of a national policy on children's exercise amounted to "child neglect".

Since 2007, New Zealand has had guidelines for physical activity for children developed by Sport NZ and the ministries of health and education. A range of organisations also run health, activity and sporting programmes.

"If we don't try and help some of these young people they might get to their twenties give up sport because they keep getting hurt," Gill said.

"They might not enjoy being active because all the damage has been done because they were so inactive around basic movements when they were younger."

 - Sunday Star Times

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