Low-birth-weight babies can often struggle as they grow to adulthood – but as this family discovered, patience and persistence with exercise and physical activity can really pay off.

Ethan Stewart’s birth did not go as planned. Doctors in northwest Illinois in the US delivered him at just 27 weeks when his mother’s health was in jeopardy. Kristen Stewart (no relation to the Hollywood actress) developed severe preeclampsia, which meant Ethan needed to enter the world 13 weeks early. Ethan was plagued with serious health conditions, including two brain bleeds, retinopathy of prematurity, bronchopulmonary dysplasia, and more. “Our doctors told us there were no guarantees and that we may have to let him pass.”

Ethan survived, but at just 2.4 lbs. (just over a kg), he didn’t look like much of a fighter. He was so small he fit in the palm of his father’s hand. Ethan experienced severe feeding issues (which led to a feeding tube) and was delayed in milestones like sitting, walking and crawling. It was hard to imagine what the future would hold for this tiny, precious baby, but the family worked tirelessly with a vast array of doctors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and feeding specialists – all while trying to maintain a sense of normalcy for the two older children, Claire (nearly 5), and Will (3).

Today, Ethan is a vibrant, healthy 10-year-old boy who just completed 4th grade. He is performing well in school and recently set a new personal record by running a 5k race in 28 minutes. However, Ethan hasn’t always liked running, or any exercise for that matter. Stewart says finding physical activities he enjoys has involved a lot of trial and error.

“He was 5-years-old when I coached his soccer team. I decided to coach since I had a feeling that it would be a struggle for him,” says Stewart. Ethan does not like cold or hot weather or contact sports. “I was coaching the team on the field. Ethan had finally kicked the ball and started to actually run. I thought he was running with the intent to play soccer. Instead, he continued running straight off the field to the concession stand! While all the other players begged to go on the field to play, Ethan begged to get off the field to rest and drink water. I think the only part of soccer Ethan enjoyed was the snack after the game.”

Ethan was not alone in his early preference for sedentary activities. A new study found people with birth weight less than or equal to 2500g (5.5lbs) were more likely to be rated as “below-average” at school sports and less likely to take part in exercise and sports across adulthood when compared with those with higher birth weights.

Dr. Ahmed Elhakeem is the lead researcher of the study and a Senior Research Associate in Epidemiology at the University of Bristol in the UK. He and his team examined data from the MRC National Survey of Health and Development, the oldest of the national British birth cohort studies. This cohort study has interviewed and assessed a group of people, all born in the same week in mainland Britain in March 1946, at regular intervals across their lives. It is managed by the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL. Elhakeem gathered and compared birth weights, teacher assessments of school sporting ability in adolescence, and self-reports of participation in leisure time physical activity (i.e. sports and exercise) at five ages across adulthood (ages 36, 43, 53, 60-64 and 68). He says he was not surprised by the study results.

“Similar findings have been reported in a few other younger populations, though our study is the first to show that the association of birth weight with participation in leisure time physical activity extends right across adulthood into later life.”

Research has shown sedentary lifestyles are hazardous to our health. “It is widely recognized that physical activity has a myriad of health benefits and helps prevent many chronic diseases and premature deaths,” says Elhakeem. “Our findings highlight that those people born with a low birth weight might require more support than others in order to achieve sustained physical activity throughout their lives.”

More research is needed to know how best to support these individuals, says Elhakeem, but the problem is not minor. The most recent statistics from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) show nearly 321,000 low birth weight babies were born in the US in 2015. That’s about eight percent of US births. Worldwide, Unicef estimates 15.5 percent of all births (20 million babies) are born with low birth weight.

After the failed soccer attempt, the Stewart family kept searching for sports that suited Ethan. “He played basketball and ran up to me after his first practice and asked what the wet stuff on his forehead was,” says Stewart. “It was the first time he exercised enough to sweat, and he was eight years old.” Since he didn’t like it when the ball was near him, he fell, or when he got bumped, Ethan soon hung up his basketball shoes next to the soccer shoes. On another occasion, he was excited to go hiking at day camp, until he realized what hiking actually was. “You didn’t tell me hiking was walking!” he exclaimed to his mom.

Family perseverance has led Ethan to several sports he does enjoy including downhill skiing (especially spring skiing when it’s warmer), swimming (in warmer air and water temperatures), kayaking, running, and throwing a football. “He seems to gravitate to individual sports or no contact sports.”

“Patience is the key,” shares Stewart. “We’ve learned to listen to him while pushing him to go outside his comfort zone. “It took multiple attempts to get Ethan hooked on skiing. “I remember telling him that we are a skiing family and he needed to try to learn. Many tears, not just his, were shed during this time. It's very difficult to balance pushing him without forcing him. I had many moments of mom guilt!”

Now that Ethan has tasted athletic success, he is hungry for more. He is looking forward to running his next 5k race and plans to join the track and field team at school next year – a far cry from his early preference for rest and snacks on the soccer field. Stewart advises families in similar situations to just keep trying.

“Listen to why they like or dislike a sport and activity. You may be able to make adjustments to make the sport or activity more enjoyable … They will find something they like – it just may not be what you would have expected.”

Carrie Knight is a BODYBALANCE Trainer and a BODYBALANCE and CXWORX Assessor Lead for Les Mills in the United States. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Madison with degrees in Broadcast Journalism and Political Science. Her background includes being a TV news anchor, radio talk show host, fitness writer, and recording voice overs. Carrie is thrilled to combine her love for fitness and journalism by writing for Fit Planet.

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