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How to help your teen get moving

Editor’s Note: Consult your doctor before starting a new exercise program. Stop immediately if you experience pain.


It’s no secret that exercise is important for your health, no matter your age. And it’s tempting to assume that kids have no problem staying active. After all, there is gym class at school, breaks for the little ones and organized sports – lots of organized sports. But children, especially teenagers, are much less active than you might think.

Adolescents should get at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity every day, according to the World Health Organisation. still a study 2019 published in the journal The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, found that less than 20% of school-aged adolescents around the world get that much activity, with girls being less active than boys. In the United States, that figure is only slightly higher, with 24% of children ages 6 to 17 doing 60 minutes of physical activity per day, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What’s behind these bleak numbers? Many things. The allure of organized sports is fading, mainly because of its rising costs, time commitment and often hyper-competitive nature. In 2018, only 38% of children aged 6 to 12 played an organized sport, compared to 45% in 2008, according to the Aspen Institute. The Covid-19 pandemic may have further accelerated the downward trend, the Aspen Institute wrote: his State of Play 2021 report.

Then there is the technology. Nearly half of American teens say they are online”almost constant”, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, an increase of just 24% in 2014-2015. And recess and outdoor playtime are no longer required in most schools, said Carol Harrison, senior clinical exercise physiologist at the University of Texas at Houston MD Anderson Cancer Center. Moreover, nowadays more children are taken to school by car than in the past, when they walked or cycled.

“A lot of kids also come home to a house where both parents may not be home from work yet,” Harrison said. “The result is very often gaming on computers and watching TV, which very often involves eating unhealthy snacks.”

This lack of exercise is worrisome, experts say, and not just from a weight perspective. In addition to improving your heart, muscle, bone and metabolic health, regular exercise helps improve your coordination and dexterity, and the resulting increased blood flow is also beneficial to the brain.

“Studies have shown that children involved in daily physical activity generally do better with attention and focus, which translates to better academic performance,” she said. “It also helps with impulse control and better management of emotions.”

How do you get your teen up a sweat? While it can often be challenging, there are many ways to introduce more physical activity into children’s lives.

No one wants to be told to get out and run. Instead of, search for activities you can all enjoy together. This could be as simple as a family bike ride, tossing around beanbags, or a trip to the park with friends. On days off, plan a camping trip that includes daily swimming, hiking or paddling.

“Focus on fun,” Harrison said. “For most kids, fun is a necessary ingredient.” So is the social aspect. “Studies have shown that the main reason most adults start and continue an exercise program is the social component,” she said. “Children are the same.”

Organized sports are good at helping teens build social connections and teach perseverance and teamwork. But some programs are more focused on winning and less on skill building. If your teen is eager to master a particular sport, a competitive program may be a good solution. But teens who participate in organized sports for fun and socialization may prefer a less competitive environment.

And keep in mind that coaches play a big role in a team’s activity level, said Jennifer Agans, an assistant professor in the department of recreation, park and tourism management at Penn State in University Park, Pennsylvania. Some perform less active drills, with players spending a lot of time listening to instructions or waiting in line to take their turn in a basketball target practice.

Not all children will enjoy organized sports, especially if they are not competitive. But maybe they would enjoy rock climbing, skateboarding or performing arts. “My starting point was youth circus,” Agans said, “and trapeze is a growing youth activity these days.”

Rock climbing is a great alternative activity for teens, especially those who don't like organized sports.

There’s also dance, yoga, martial arts, ultimate frisbee, badminton, pickleball and more. Currently trending: virtual reality exercise, something Agans says will likely be prominent in the future. studies have already shown that it can have a positive effect on physical activity.

Exercise is not strictly equivalent to sports. For example, chores burn calories, so assign your kids the appropriate ages that need the most exercise. Think of mowing the lawn or vacuuming versus dusting or washing dishes. Creating a garden is another good option, Harrison said, because gardens include planting, watering, weeding and more.

Chores like mowing the lawn are a great way for teens to sweat and burn some calories.

Competitions can also promote activity. Challenge your teen to see who can run the fastest, do the most sit-ups, or walk the most steps each day or week. Use small gifts as a reward. And don’t forget volunteer work, which often involves a lot of exercise. Perhaps they can participate in a trail-building event or help someone pack and move boxes.

If teens suddenly show no interest in an activity they normally enjoy, sit down for a chat. Perhaps their lack of interest in swimming is because they are suddenly embarrassed to be seen in a swimsuit, Agans said. Or maybe they want to quit football because a new teammate is laughing at them, or because they don’t have a friend on the team this year.

“Interpersonal limitations like these can keep people from doing activities they enjoy doing,” she said, so don’t assume that your teen has suddenly lost motivation to exercise. There could be something else going on.

Also watch out for signs of sports addiction, which is associated with excessive exercise and is often associated with eating disorders. Signs of compulsive exercise include losing a lot of weight, exercising more after eating a lot or missing a workout, and refusing to skip a workout even when you’re tired, sick, or injured.

If teens find activities they enjoy, pay attention all positives as a result of their increased exercise, whether that be stronger muscles, better sleep, or higher energy levels. That can help them on the days when their motivation wanes — something that happens to kids and adults alike.

“Kids can learn to be excited to move,” Agans said. “We need to put them on a path where they have a foundation of fun with exercise, which leads them to seek out activity as young adults.”

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