How to Keep Kids Safe at Your Club

Learn from three scenarios that could happen at your health club, and apply them to your policies to keep kids healthy and safe.

There are many reasons to offer kids fitness programs and child care within your club. However, it’s important that you and your staff are well prepared for the risks associated with developing these types of programs. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that, every year, about 3.5 million children under the age of 14 are injured while playing sports or participating in other recreational activities. Even though many of these injuries occur outside of a club setting, it is crucial to be aware of the unique safety and legal issues you could face when working with children.

Here are three types of scenarios that could happen at your club and how you can use these examples to review your policies for kids and teens and prepare for situations like these which could impact kids’ abilities to enjoy a safe, effective sweat session:

The Heavy-Lifter

Aaron, a middle-schooler training to make the town football team, decides that he is going to start going to your gym to build muscle mass and bulk up before the tryouts begin. On his first day of training, he walks into the gym to meet with a staff member at the front desk. He asks a few questions about the equipment in the weight room and the staff member asks how old he is. He responds with his age, and the staff members informs him that, for safety reasons, he is not allowed to use this equipment because he is at a higher risk for hurting himself.

Should Aaron be allowed to use the free weights? And if so, what plans should the club have in place that would ensure Aaron is trained, supervised, and is doing age appropriate exercise?

Yes, he should be allowed to as long as necessary precautions are taken. The skeletal system has not yet been fully developed in children and because of this, children are more vulnerable to injury than adults would be. When teaching children how to use weights and freestanding machines, it is important to focus on light resistance, controlled movements, and proper technique to keep them safe. Professional healthcare and fitness professional groups agree that a supervised strength-training program that follows the recommended guidelines is safe and effective for children. There is no recommended minimum age requirement for a child to participate in a strength training program, although the child should be able to follow directions and show adequate balance, which generally occurs by 7 to 8 years of age.

Many clubs require that younger members take a class before they are able to train without supervision or may require that parents be present. Whatever you do, it is important to have a system in place that ensures that your younger members do not start training without proper instruction. To that end, it is useful to have a comprehensive policy which may include: whether the club has a minimum age requirement for allowing the use of certain equipment, whether parental permission is required, whether a safety training session with a trainer or consultant is required prior to using the facilities for the first time, whether physician approval is required, and whether staff supervision is required.

Article image

The Competitors

Katherine and Sofia are sisters. As such, they are very competitive, especially when it comes to sports. They have been attending a health club for years, participating in children’s group sports programming while their mom is busy running on the treadmill.

Today when they come into the club, a club staff member tells them today’s activity is kickball. The girls are thrilled and ask if they can compete against each other, even though they are three years apart and have a different set of skills. The staff member tells them that this is allowed.

Should teams be paired according to age, weight, skill level, etc.?

Yes. Kids that participate in contact sports should be paired according to age, maturity, weight, height, and motor skill. Several lawsuits have alleged that uneven pairings of athletes presented an unreasonable risk of harm and were acts of negligence. As a result, care should be taken when dividing students into teams.

In a New York case, a young boy was injured during a game of kickball. The small boy was matched against a six-foot, 180 pound boy, was kicked and suffered a concussion. The court ruled in favor of the injured boy on the basis of a hazardous contact game with unevenly matched opponents.

It is also important to take note of any physical limitations of the participants. In 2013, a high-school student in West Virginia filed a lawsuit as the result of an injury he suffered while playing kickball. This student was required to play kickball during a physical education class despite having had prior surgeries on his lower extremities. While running, his leg buckled and resulted in a fracture. This case settled for $55,000.

The Next Dara Torres

Madeleine is an aspiring swimmer. She just finished the fourth grade and is now enjoying her summer vacation by using the pool at her local health club.

This morning, Madeleine decides that she is going to test her swimming skills in the deep end of the pool. She wades in from the shallow end, but when she can no longer touch the bottom of the pool with her feet she panics and is unable to keep herself above water. An older gentleman sees her struggling, guides her back to the side of the pool, and helps her out of the water.

She thanks him and he says he was more than happy to help, but he wonders why there wasn’t a lifeguard on duty at the time.

Should a lifeguard be present when kids are using the pool at your club?

Courts have not ruled consistently one way or the other. In many states, if a pool is not open to the general public (such as a private club that requires membership for admission), then it is not required to have a lifeguard on duty. However, the laws regulating whether a lifeguard must be on duty vary by state and prior to opening a pool to member use (including to minors), state-specific research on this issue should be conducted. If a lifeguard is not on duty, the club should post signage notifying members to this fact.

Author avatar

Shannon Vogler @vogler_shannon

Shannon Vogler is the Communications and Public Relations Coordinator for IHRSA. Shannon writes articles, press releases, and the IHRSA Advocate newsletter to make IHRSA members aware of policy issues that impact health clubs. She also speaks with media influencers about the benefits of working out and joining a gym. When she's not writing, Shannon enjoys running and cheering for the New England Patriots.