It's no secret that exercise is important for your health, whatever your age. And it's tempting to assume kids have no problem staying active. After all, there is gym class in school, recess for the younger ones and organized sports -- lots of organized sports. But children, and especially teenagers, are far less active than you would think.
Adolescents should be getting at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity every day, according to the World Health Organization. Yet a 2019 study published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal showed less than 20% of school-going adolescents around the globe are getting this much activity, with girls less active than boys. In the United States, that figure is only slightly higher, with 24% of children ages 6 to 17 being physically active for 60 minutes per day, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What's behind these dismal numbers? Many things. The allure of organized sports is fading, mainly due to its increasing costs, time commitment and often-hypercompetitive nature. Just 38% of kids ages 6 to 12 were playing an organized sport in 2018, down from 45% in 2008, according to the Aspen Institute. The Covid-19 pandemic may have further accelerated the downward trend, the Aspen Institute wrote in its State of Play 2021 report.
Then there's technology. Nearly half of US teens say they are online "almost constantly," according to a Pew Research Center study, up from just 24% in 2014-2015. And recess and outside playtime are no longer mandatory in most schools, said Carol Harrison, senior clinical exercise physiologist with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. In addition, more kids are driven to school today than in the past, when they walked or biked.
"Many children also come home to a house where both parents may not have yet arrived home from work," Harrison said. "The result, very often, is gaming on computers and watching TV, which are very often accompanied by 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 increased blood flow is helpful to the brain, too.
"Studies have shown that kids involved in daily physical activity do better overall with attention and focus, which translates into better academic performance," she said. "It also helps with impulse control and better management of emotions."
Ways to boost physical activity
How do you get your teen to bust a sweat? While it can often be a challenge, there are many ways to introduce more physical activity into children's lives.
Make motion a fun, social experience
No one wants to be told to get out there and start running. Instead, look for activities you can all enjoy together. This can be as simple as a family bike ride, a round of beanbag toss or a trip to the park with friends. On days off, schedule a camping trip, where a daily swim, hike or paddling session is on the agenda.
"Focus on fun," Harrison said. "With most kids, fun is a necessary ingredient." So is the social aspect. "Studies have shown that the No. 1 reason most adults start and continue an exercise program is the social component," she said. "Kids are the same."
Consider organized sports
Organized sports are good at helping teens build social connections and learn perseverance and teamwork. But some programs are more focused on winning and less on nurturing skills. If your teen is eager to master a particular sport, a competitive program might be a great fit. But teens who are in organized sports for the fun and socialization may prefer a less-competitive environment.
And be aware 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 run less-active practices, where players might spend a lot of time listening to instructions or waiting in line to take their turn in a basketball shooting drill.
Think outside the box
Not all kids are going to enjoy organized sports, especially if they are not competitive. But maybe they would enjoy rock climbing, skateboarding or the performing arts. "My entry point was youth circus," Agans said, "and trapeze is a growing youth activity today."
There is also dance, yoga, martial arts, ultimate frisbee, badminton, pickleball and more. Currently trending: virtual reality exercise, something Agans said will likely be prominent in the future. Studies already are showing it has the potential to have a positive effect on physical activity.
Sneak it in
Exercise doesn't strictly equate with sports. Chores burn calories, for example, so assign your kids the age-appropriate ones that require the most movement. Think mowing the lawn or vacuuming versus dusting or drying the dishes. Creating a garden is another good option, Harrison said, as 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 every day or week. Use small gifts as a reward. And don't overlook volunteer work, which often involves a lot of motion. Perhaps they can participate in a trail-building event or assist someone in packing and moving boxes.
Be tuned in to your teen
If teens suddenly show no interest in an activity they normally enjoy, sit down for a talk. Maybe their lack of interest in swimming is because they are suddenly embarrassed to be seen in a swimsuit, Agans said. Or perhaps they want to drop out of soccer 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 stop people from doing activities they like to do," she said, so don't assume your teen has suddenly lost the motivation to move. Something else could be going on.
Watch, too, for signs of exercise addiction, which involves excessive exercising and is often linked 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 tired, sick or injured.
Point out the positives
As teens are finding activities they enjoy, make sure to note all of the positives resulting from their increased movement, whether that's stronger muscles, better sleep or higher energy levels. That can help them on the days in which their motivation wanes -- something that happens to children and adults alike.
"Kids can learn to be excited to move," Agans said. "We need to set them on a path where they have a foundation of enjoyment with movement that will get them to seek out activity as young adults."
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