Exercise is good for us. It strengthens our bones and our muscles, and keeps our joints in working order. It prevents and can reverse high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and insomnia. It is the best way to avoid heart disease. It improves our immune system. Exercise has been clinically shown to improve mental health, including helping to alleviate depression and anxiety. It reduces the risk of dementia in our older years. And, of course, it helps people to maintain a healthy weight. With the exception of some people who cannot exercise for medical reasons (like a heart problem or eating disorder), reaping the benefits of exercise is one of the best things we can do for our health. Exercise is highly recommended for teens who want to lose weight, maintain a healthy weight, or just maintain a healthy body and mind.
But, in general, Americans don’t get enough exercise. There are numerous reasons for that. Some of them are simply our society changing; we don’t work in the fields, walk miles to school or work, or spend hours hanging up clothes to dry. Video games and personal computers, which involve lots of sitting, are relatively recent inventions. With “urban sprawl” comes less of an ability to walk to destinations, as it’s not efficient or sometimes even feasible not to drive. Some areas are simply not conducive to outdoor exercise: they lack sidewalks, have high crime rates, or are easy to get lost in.
Another issue is time. Teens are going to school, working part-time, engaging in multiple extracurricular activities, texting each other, spending time with friends, updating their Facebook page… We recommend that teens have an hour daily of physical activity, and it is difficult for many teens to find a free hour in the day, every day. As schools cut back on physical education, we can’t rely on PE to give teens their daily dose of exercise.
The good news is that any exercise is better than none. While we know that in an ideal situation, teens should get an hour a day of exercise, this doesn’t mean that 20 minutes of exercise is useless. It carries all the beneficial effects of exercise, it’s just a smaller dose of it. A teen who increases their daily exercise from nothing to 20 minutes a day is doing fantastically well! They need support in turning exercise from a new addition to a lifelong habit; this is the hardest task for new exercisers.
Exercise your teen enjoys is far, far more likely to become a long-term habit than something they feel like they “have to do.” Every teen is different. Talk to them about what they truly enjoy and can envision doing for years to come. They may want to do anything from running to water aerobics to simply turning on music and dancing in their room. If there is a place to walk safely, most people find it soothing and invigorating to take a walk. (If you have a dog, I’m sure it would love an extra walk during the day.)
If your teen is up for it, and your schedules coincide, this can be a family affair. Most people find it easier to fit exercise into their day if they have a partner or group to hold them accountable. Bike rides, walks, swimming sessions, or gym classes can be a great chance to get some exercise and bond. If you have an X-Box, Playstation, or another gaming console, there are many fun games involving physical activity your teen can play alone or with the family. If money is tight, but your teen is interested in a gym, see if your local YMCA or community gym has any special deals.
Just like with healthy eating, it’s important to role model healthy physical activity for your teen. If you rarely exercise, and you are motivated to exercise more, tell them what you’re going to do and why. They may join you, they may start something of their own, or they may seem uninterested. But every time you put on your walking shoes, stuff a bathing suit into your bag, or start doing that Zumba video, they are reminded that you care about your health, that exercise is important, and that if they want to be healthy they should consider getting up and moving as well.