5 Ways to Play Defense Against Back-to-School Sports Health Risks

Adult and kid stretching on the floor on a yoga mat

Created by: Michelle Vittitow MSN, APRN, FNP-C Kentucky Regional Clinical Director, The Little Clinic

When you're the parent of a student athlete, back-to-school time also means back-to-endless-loads-of-laundry time, back-to-rushed-dinnertime—not to mention back-to-where-is-the-ace-bandage time. But no need to sweat it—here are 5 easy ways to "win" at keeping your family healthy, happy and safe this season.

1. Winner, Winner, Healthy Dinner. Those neon fast food restaurant lights sure look appealing when stomachs are growling and a long night at the fields or courts awaits, but if you can, pack your food and drinks to control the menu and make sure your kids are properly hydrated.

On-the-go options:

  • Fresh fruit and raw vegetables –wash and slice ahead of time and keep in a cooler or insulated bag
  • Snack-size-crackers or other single-serving treats that are high in protein – peanut butter, yogurt, hummus and nuts are all good options

Let's be realistic, though. Sometimes you've got to resort to fast food or the concession stand, so make wise choices. Avoid sugary, caffeinated beverages that can dehydrate and choose food items that are low in fat, like salads with low fat or fat-free dressing, rather than upsizing that burger, soda and fries meal deal.

2. Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate. Athletes need adequate hydration before, during and after sports to remain healthy and to perform at the top of their game. Send your kids to school with a giant reusable water bottle and make sure they have plenty of liquid at the game, too. Water is a better option than sports drinks in most cases, but heavy endurance activities will require drinks infused with added electrolytes.

3. Don't Forget About Food Safety. Between all of the dirt kids track in from the field and the bacteria that can develop on packed food in warmer weather, combining mealtime with sports is an open invitation for germs to join your (dinner) party. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend these food safety tips:

  • Always keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot.
  • When you're finished eating, put away leftovers promptly in a fridge, cooler or insulated bag. Don't let food sit out for more than two hours. On a hot day (90°F or higher), reduce this time to one hour.
  • Wash hands with soap and water before eating, if possible—if not, use hand sanitizer.

4. Don't Let Kids Get Sidelined by Injuries. Staying healthy during sports season is not just about what you eat and drink. It's also about teaching your kids to stay safe on and off the field or courts. Here are some ways to play defense against injuries, courtesy of the CDC.

Get your child a back-to-school sports physical. Most schools require these before allowing participation in sports; even if they don't, you will want a health practitioner to rule out any preexisting conditions that would make team sports unwise. No need to wait weeks for an appointment—it's easy to walk into The Little Clinic for this routine exam!

Insist on the right protective gear (helmets, pads, etc.), even during informal practices, and make sure you're educated about symptoms of concussion in case your child does get injured.

Warming up and stretching is something we all tend to overlook, but we're less likely to get injured if we're limber—so if you're running late and your kid misses the warm up, make sure he takes some time to stretch before the game or practice, even if it's just in the car while you're driving to the athletic facility.

Prevent sunburn by making sure everyone going to outdoor events—from the athletes to little brothers and sisters along for the ride—is wearing sunscreen.

5. Put Your Student Athlete In Time-Out. Recovery is an important part of being an athlete. That means eating healthfully before and after exercise (make up for the fast-food run on non-game nights with a well-rounded meal, and make sure breakfast and lunch are nutrient-dense) and getting adequate sleep. According to the CDC, kids ages 7–12 years old should get 10-11 hours of sleep each night and teens ages 12–18 years old need a nightly dose of 8-9 hours of shut-eye. Yes, we know your student has three pages of geology homework when he gets home from his swim meet—but do your best to enforce bedtime the other nights of the week.