Editor’s note: Before starting any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you feel pain.
It’s no secret that exercise is important for your health, no matter what your age. And it’s tempting to assume that kids have no problem staying active. After all, there are gym classes at school, playtime for the younger kids, and organized sports – lots of organized sports. But children, and especially teenagers, are much less active than you might think.
According to the World Health Organization, teens should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. Yet a 2019 study published in the journal The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health showed that less than 20% of school-going adolescents globally are as active, with girls being less active than boys. In the United States, this figure is only slightly higher, with 24% of children aged 6 to 17 being physically active for 60 minutes a day, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What’s behind these dismal numbers? Several things. The appeal of organized sports is fading, primarily due to its rising costs, time commitment and often hyper-competitive nature. According to the Aspen Institute, only 38% of children aged 6 to 12 participated in organized sport in 2018, compared to 45% in 2008. The Covid-19 pandemic may have further accelerated the downward trend, writes the Aspen Institute in its 2021 State of Play report.
Then there is technology. According to a Pew Research Center study, nearly half of American teens say they are online “almost constantly,” up from just 24% in 2014-2015. And recess and outdoor playtime are no longer mandatory at most schools, said Carol Harrison, senior clinical exercise physiologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center at Houston. Also, more children are driven to school today than before, when walking or riding bicycles.
“Many children also come home to a house where both parents may not have returned from work yet,” Harrison said. “The result, very often, is playing on computers and watching TV, which very often comes with eating unhealthy snacks.”
This lack of movement is concerning, 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 agility, and the resulting increase in blood flow is also helpful to the brain.
“Studies have shown that children involved in daily physical activity do better overall 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 teenager to sweat? Although it can often be a challenge, there are many ways to introduce more physical activity into children’s lives.
No one wants to be told to get out and start running. Instead, look for activities you can all do together. It can be as simple as a family bike ride, a game of beanbag tossing, or a trip to the park with friends. On days off, plan a camping trip, where a daily session of swimming, hiking or paddling is on the agenda.
“Focus on the fun,” Harrison said. “With most children, fun is a necessary ingredient.” The social aspect too. “Studies have shown that the number one reason most adults start and stay on an exercise program is the social component,” she said. “Children are the same.”
Organized sports help teens build social connections and learn perseverance and teamwork. But some programs are more about winning and less about skill development. If your teen wants to master a particular sport, a competitive program might be the perfect fit. But teens who play organized sports for fun and socializing may prefer a less competitive environment.
And know that coaches play an important role in a team’s activity level, said Jennifer Agans, assistant professor in the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Management at Penn State in University Park, Pennsylvania. Some hold less active practices, where players may spend a lot of time listening to instructions or waiting in line to take their turn in a basketball shooting drill.
Not all children will enjoy organized sports, especially if they are not competitive. But maybe they would like rock climbing, skateboarding or the performing arts. “My entry point was the youth circus,” said Agans, “and trapeze is a growing activity for young people today.”
There’s also dancing, yoga, martial arts, ultimate frisbee, badminton, pickleball and more. Current trend: Virtual reality exercise, something Agans said will likely be important in the future. Studies already show that it has the potential to have a positive effect on physical activity.
Exercise is not strictly synonymous with sport. Chores burn calories, for example, so assign your kids the ones that are age-appropriate and require the most movement. Consider mowing the lawn or vacuuming rather than dusting or drying the dishes. Creating a garden is another good option, Harrison said, because gardens involve planting, watering, pulling weeds and more.
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 each week. Use small gifts as rewards. And don’t neglect volunteer work, which often involves a lot of movement. Maybe 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 and have a chat. Maybe their lack of interest in swimming is because they’re suddenly embarrassed to be seen in swimsuits, Agans said. Or maybe they want to quit football because a new teammate is making fun of them or they don’t have a friend on the team this year.
“Interpersonal constraints like these can keep people from doing activities they love to do,” she said, so don’t assume your teen has suddenly lost motivation to move. Something else could be happening.
Also watch for signs of exercise addiction, which involves excessive exercise and is often linked to eating disorders. Signs of compulsive exercise include losing weight, exercising after eating a lot or missing a workout, and refusing to skip a workout, even when tired, sick, or injured.
As teens find activities they enjoy, be sure to note any positives resulting from their increased movement, whether it’s stronger muscles, better sleep, or lower levels. higher energy. It can help them on days when their motivation wanes, which happens to kids and adults alike.
“Children can learn to get excited about moving,” Agans said. “We need to put them on a path where they have a fun base with movement that will lead them to seek activity as young adults.”
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