We all know that exercise is an important part of living a healthy lifestyle. This is especially true for teenagers. But we also know that teens are living a much more sedentary lifestyle than in previous decades. Teens are engaging with each other over cell phones, social media and video games as opposed to walking to a park, biking to a friend’s house or shooting hoops at a basketball court.
Children and teens 6-17 years old need at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day. Unfortunately, studies show only about 1 in 4 high school students get that daily recommended amount of exercise. As a sports medicine physician and mom, I know it can be challenging to get your teens up and moving. But there are so many reasons why prioritizing exercise can benefit your teen’s life. Here are some of my favorite reasons I like to share with parents and teens.
Exercise benefits both the body and the mind
Teens’ bodies are still growing and developing, and exercise aids in that process. Exercise helps teens build strong bones, increase muscle strength, improve sleep, maintain a healthy weight and much more. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends three different types of exercise for teens:
- Aerobic activity: Most of the daily 60 minutes should include activities like walking, running, swimming or anything that increases the heart rate.
- Muscle-strengthening: Includes activities like climbing or doing push-ups.
- Bone-strengthening: Includes activities such as jumping or running.
Exercise can help teens’ mental health as well. During exercise, the body releases endorphins that lower stress levels, boost alertness and increase energy levels throughout the day. So when your teen is faced with lots of new stressors – starting at a new school, navigating new relationships or preparing for a big test – exercise can be a great outlet.
The U.S. Surgeon General declared a youth mental health crisis in 2021, noting a significant increase in certain mental health disorders in youth, including depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Exercise can be an important tool to help teens who are suffering with mental health challenges. For moderate-to-severe mental health disorders, exercise can serve as an adjuvant to medication and therapy.
Exercise creates strong social bonds
Teens thrive on social connection during these formative years, and exercise is a great way to bond with family and friends.
When we think of creating social bonds through exercise, we often think of sports. Sports are a great way to teach teens about teamwork, problem solving and communication. But teens don’t have to join a sports team to exercise with friends. They can walk to and from school with a friend or gather a group of peers to go hiking or rock climbing on the weekend. Even something like shooting hoops at a local court will increase their heart rate and promote friendship.
Exercise is also a great way for teens to bond with their family. Instead of sitting down to watch TV after dinner, go for a walk as a family around the neighborhood or play catch for a half hour. My daughters and I like to do jump rope challenges and see who can jump rope for the longest. I love seeing their competitive side, and love that I am getting some physical activity, too!
Exercise creates lifelong healthy habits
Regular exercise reduces the risk of developing obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and more. If your teen starts exercising now, they are more likely to keep exercising as they age. It’s much easier to exercise later in life when you’ve built a foundation in your youth. The best time to start is now!
Exercise can be incorporated into a teen’s interests
Teens don’t need to stop doing what they love just to exercise. You’d be surprised how easy it is to incorporate movement into their daily routine. If your teen is hooked on a new TV show, encourage them to do jumping jacks or lunges during the commercials (or if the TV show is on a streaming service, in between episodes). There are plenty of online videos about exercise. Encourage your teens to make one of their own with some friends. If they like listening to music, turn on their favorite songs when they get home from school instead of turning on the TV. Take time to get to know your teen’s interests and see how you can incorporate exercise into their hobbies.
A note about body image issues in teens
When a teen starts exercising regularly, you may notice changes in their physical appearance. While you may feel inclined to praise them for losing weight or gaining muscle, be mindful that teens may suffer from body image issues. Instead of telling your teen that you’re proud of them for losing weight, you can say something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been sleeping better since you started walking to school!” or “I see that you’re really focused on your homework after you get home from the gym.” This puts the focus on something other than their body. Praising their work ethic is also a great idea.
Teens look to their parents for guidance about body image, whether you realize it or not. Think about how you talk about your body and exercising – is it negative or positive? I try my best to talk positively about myself, especially when I am around my kids.
The bottom line
Exercise has countless benefits for teens. Even if your teen has never exercised in the past, it’s never too late to start. Every minute of exercise counts. So encourage your teen to lace up their sneakers, grab a friend and get active! You’ll be grateful that they are taking steps to create a happy, healthy life for all the years to come.