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1. Decrud Your Gear
If you're like most families, your summer sports stuff may not get the TLC it needs. In fact, some of it may still be where your kids threw it at the end of the last season. Before they run out of the house wearing dirt-caked kneepads or kicking a slimy soccer ball, do a yuck check, says Larysa DiDio, a certified personal trainer and co-author of Sneaky Fitness. Dirty equipment and sports supplies don't just pose an aesthetic problem; they could be dangerous, hiding flaws or necessary repairs. The solution: Give yourself time to carefully clean each item. Wipe, hose or brush until you can get a good look at its condition.
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"Take an inventory of the equipment you have," says DiDio, "and replace everything that's unusable." Then spruce up what is still workable. Fill deflated balls and bike tires. Get rackets restrung or repaired. "Condition mitts, make sure you have enough tennis balls and two of every piece of sports equipment that requires two to play a game," says DiDio. "There's nothing worse than playing badminton by yourself!" Don't forget to check nonsporty gear, like the wheels on wagons. And if you have a backyard playground, check the level of protective padding on the ground (mulch, sand or rubber matting) and inspect hinges, links and the general condition of the equipment.
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3. Use Your Head
You get points for knowing a helmet is a must whenever riding a scooter, skateboard, bicycle, tricycle or rollerblades—and for some sports. But throwing on the helmet you or the kids wore last year isn't smart. Every year you should do a mandatory helmet inspection and fitting, says Lisa Pardi, R.N., M.S.N., injury prevention coordinator for Akron Children's Hospital in Ohio. Replace a helmet that has worn straps, clips that stick, or cracks.
Check the fit: A well-fitted helmet sits just above the eyebrows and the fastening straps create a V-shape that surrounds the ears and then is fastened under the chin. "It should be snug enough that it will not rock back and forth on the child's head. Use the pads provided with the helmet to snug it up and try tightening the chin strap," says Pardi. The helmet shouldn't move if the wearer shakes his or her head back and forth. Allow just one finger width between the chin and the strap. If you're buying a new helmet, look for an American Standards Testing Materials (ASTM) label. This indicates that the helmet has been tested and suits Consumer Product Safety Commission standards for safety.
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Independence, teamwork, a sense of accomplishment: These are all things that a child can learn from being athletic or being part of a team. But make sure that the supervising coach, babysitter, teacher—whoever—knows first aid and CPR. And ask about injury-preventing warm-ups and cooldowns and about guidelines on how long teams practice or play in high heat.
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Whether you keep sports equipment in a closet, a bin or a corner of the basement: phew! It can smell and become a harbor for germs. Certified personal trainer Larysa DiDio gives her outdoor plastic sports storage bin a good cleaning each season. "We empty it, wash everything with a cleaning spray and give the bin a good cleaning with a power hose," she says. If you store sports equipment indoors, give everything the same cleaning treatment—just use a bucket of water or toss smaller items in the bathtub to sanitize everything for the season. Hang an air freshener in the area if the scent of dirty socks or sweaty uniforms is hard to banish.
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6. Degerm the Gym Bag
Even if you're vigilant, the gym bag can harbor germs, bacteria and bad odors, not only because of the sweaty, dirty clothes in the bag, but because of where the bag spends time: on the floor in the locker room, gym or bathroom. To keep your family gym bags smelling fresh and germfree, make a rule that all dirty clothes have to be removed as soon as the bag comes in the back door. Place a laundry hamper in a convenient location to encourage this practice. Then hand wash your bag once a week with hot water and a mild laundry detergent and let it air-dry, suggests Gisela Lowenstein, who created The Glow System, a home cleaning DVD. "When the bag is completely dry, spritz an antibacterial spray inside," she says. "If it still smells after you've washed it, add a few drops of lavender essential oil."
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7. Pack the Right Stuff
Once you've fumigated the gym bag, it's important that it has the right stuff, including hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes, a good water bottle (BPA-free and with a really good top that doesn't leak), waterproof sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above that protects against UVA and UVB rays, and healthy snacks (see #8). Pack a hat or bandanna and bandages. And throw in a few plastic bags for wet bathing suits, sweaty gym clothes, mud-plastered soccer shoes, suggests Len Saunders, author of Keeping Kids Fit.
If your kids remove retainers or glasses for their sport, make sure they have hard protective cases in which to store them. Don't forget a mouth guard if your older child is playing a contact sport. The Academy of General Dentistry estimates that wearing mouth guards prevents more than 200,000 injuries a year.
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8. Don't Forget the Fuel
Shop smart for healthy snacks that provide sustained energy by keeping blood sugar stable, says trainer DiDio. Sports bars, trail mix, an apple or string cheese all fill the bill. Every gym bag should also contain water in a BPA-free bottle. "Drinking water while you're exercising will prevent fatigue and keep your body temperature regulated," says Scott Danberg, director of fitness at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Miami. Water plus a banana will help balance electrolytes, says Cheryl Wu, M.D., a pediatrician in New York City, who says the combo works better than a sports drink that has lots of sugar.
Remind your child that becoming dehydrated or getting heatstroke is serious business and that they are more prone to it than adults are. Symptoms include weakness, fatigue, headache, nausea, vomiting, pale skin, dizziness, impaired judgment, cramps, fever and sweating. If heatstroke progresses, the child may be confused, drowsy or combative. Seek medical attention. Kids should drink water frequently even if they aren't thirsty.
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9. Do a Bike Checkup
If you haven't taken your wheels for a spin since fall, do the following:
- Do a light hosing or wipe down to remove winter grime.
- Check tires and fill if necessary. The required pressure is usually marked on the white part of the tire.
- Dust off brakes and test-drive them to make sure that they work.
- Clean chain with a rag. Apply a bit of oil, if dry.
- Wipe reflectors and check (and replace) batteries on any lights.
- Check that the pump, patch kit, water bottle and helmet are in good condition.
- Adjust seat height on kids' bikes.