Exercising improves both mental and physical health, and yet it is incredibly easy to stay sedentary in today’s world. Conveniences such as remote work and school, food delivery services, and screen-time pastimes can dramatically reduce the time we spend on our feet, leading to far less actual movement or exertion.
For that reason, getting up and moving is a critical part of staying healthy, now more than ever, no matter how old you are. Developing healthy habits in the impressionable teen years leads to greater health and satisfaction in the short term while setting up habits that can last well into adulthood.
According to the CDC, children aged 6 through 17 need about an hour of moderate to high intensity exercise daily (
Youth who exercise also tend to experience a lower incidence of depression (2). Exercise can take the form of sports play, aerobic exercise such as walking or roller skating, or strength training.
Still, only 25% of American teens reach this recommendation (
That’s quite a difference from the recommended amount, and it’s easy to imagine that the closer you are to the hour per day recommendation, the better your results will be. It’s possible, however to take this “more is better” attitude too far.
There is absolutely such a thing as too much of a good thing. While teenagers need a fair amount of exercise, getting too much exercise comes with its own issues.
Some people are naturally more active than others, but too much training can lead to injury, reduced immunity, sleeplessness, and depression. Additionally, a hyper-focus on the body can lead to disordered eating and a compulsion to burn excessive calories.
Signs that your child might be getting too much exercise include:
- Anxiety surrounding workouts
- Fear about or unwillingness to miss a workout
- Significant body changes (bullking up or weight loss) in a short time
- Isolation from old friends and/or reluctance to participate in former hobbies in favor of working out
- Loss of menstrual period
- Restricted eating
- Frequent injuries
Any of these might happen occasionally, but it is a cause for concern if these behaviors become a predominant pattern.
Don’t underestimate the influence of a parent. Not only can a parent’s good example influence their child to make heathy choices about exercise and diet, but so, too, can parental bad habits lead to less healthy choices.
Model good behaviors by being physically active yourself, but also provide emotional support for your child and words of encouragement. Research has found that mental health and social-emotional support from parents promotes a healthy love for movement, especially in girls (
A good exercise program for anyone includes elements of cardio, strength, and mobility work. This is also true for teens.
Many people wonder if it’s safe for teens to lift weights. In general, the answer is yes, so long as they are working with a weight that is not too heavy. In general, the goal for strength training in the teen years should be to focus on form, using lower weights and higher reps, rather than trying to lift the heaviest weight possible (5).
If sports are a large part of a teenager’s life, agility training may also be included as a part of an ideal program. This type of training enhances quickness and reaction time and includes exercises that train balance and power, and even offer a cognitive challenge (
While a large portion of a teen’s exercise program should be fairly high energy, there is also abundant evidence that mind-body exercises such as yoga can reduce anxiety and improve mental health in both healthy kids and those facing mental health challenges (
- Moderation is key. Overtraining in youth sports has become more common as kids start specializing in one sport at younger ages. This early specificity and hyper-focus on sport performance can lead to burnout and injury. The teen years are best used for variety, experimentation, and moderation, pursuing the goal of entering adulthood with well-rounded athleticism and finding joy in movement (8).
- Consider their size and ability. Some teens are able to use adult size equipment at the gym, but smaller teens may need modifications. For instance, a small-framed teen entering a group cycling class may need to be sized for the bike before class to avoid discomfort and potential injury. Similarly, a shorter-limbed person will want to know how to set up the selectorized weight machines in order to not place undue stress on the joints.
- Emphasize effort, not performance. Developing skills, coordination, and sportsmanship can have a lasting impact on a young athlete’s life, whereas emphasizing wins or competition can cause anxiety and a likelihood of quitting (
- Don’t focus on their body. Body image issues develop more easily in both male and female athletes when emphasis is put on the physical appearance of the athlete (
10). Emphasize strength and athleticism over aesthetics.
- Focus on fun! Framing exercise as an unpleasant chore to get through is not the path to a lifetime of healthy movement. There are a lot of ways to exercise, so not only is it possible to find something you enjoy doing, but it might be something you didn’t expect. For instance, jumping rope is a terrific high-intensity cardio exercise that many adults love to hate, but many kids jump rope voluntarily and love every minute. Finding some form of movement that is enjoyable can lead to a lifelong love of movement that will enhance health beyond measure.
For overweight teens looking to lose weight, a careful approach is required. Treating exercise as punishment or as a means to an end is about as useful as going on a crash diet. It will be unpleasant, unsustainable, and ineffective.
Here are some key ways to help your overweight teen:
- Combine exercise with healthy eating. Exercise is great for burning calories and is extremely important in maintenance of weight lost, but it plays a smaller role than diet in losing weight (
11). Exercise for the metabolic boost and to create a healthy habit to keep off weight that has been lost, but don’t rely on punitive exercise for the change.
- Parental support and involvement. Supporting your teen includes eating healthy with them and modeling desired behaviors. Words of affirmation are also key — not complimenting the weight loss or attractiveness of your child, but praising the efforts to improve their health. The willingness to take your child to workouts or sports plays a role, as does encouraging healthy habits such as eating mindfully, rather than in front of the television (
- Patience is required. Successful weight loss, especially long-term weight loss, requires time and patience. Remember to focus on the wholeness of the child and not make losing weight the cornerstone of your relationship.
- Focus on health, not appearance. Putting the focus on looking good or fitting into clothes is a pipeline to disordered eating and body image issues (
- Make it fun. Rather than making exercise a regimented program, insert family excursions like hikes or park days into the family’s schedule. Loving movement is something we can do our whole lives, and creating that emotional connection between movement, family, togetherness, and fun is something that can have lifelong benefits.
Finding something — or even better some things — that your teen loves to do will help them have a healthy relationship with exercise that they can keep for life. A good place to start is to eliminate the “shoulds” from your life.
There are so many joyful ways to move our bodies, and committing to exercise takes only figuring out how you love to move, rather than thinking about how you “should” move.
Here are a few questions to ask to help your teen find movement they love and are more likely to stick with:
- Do you love to be inside our outside? If your teen is outdoorsy, try volleyball, tennis, or hiking — if you trap them inside, they will not thrive. Conversely, if they love the regimented feel of a really good circuit training class or the clang of the weight room, they may flounder outside.
- Are you a social exerciser? The same exercise experienced in different ways can make a difference. If your teen is motivated by exercising in a group, ride a bike in a room with great music and 20 people! If your teen is more of a loner, take the bike out on the road! Same great exercise, two very different experiences. Encourage them to find their social (or antisocial) bliss for a more rewarding experience.
- Can you multitask? If homework requires listening to a video or audiobook, perhaps they can pop in some headphones and walk while getting their work done. Or maybe they’re looking for something fun to do on a Friday night and decide to trade in the movies for a night at the roller rink.
- Can you make it a game? Teenagers are just bigger kids, and the power of play is still applicable at any age. Can they make a game out of exercising? Play tag with younger siblings in the yard? Challenge their friends to a field day? Race on stand up paddleboards? Making movement fun is key for everyone.
Once they’ve found what they like, encourage them to diversify and experience new things. If you want them to find a love for movement that will last a lifetime, help them follow their joy and stay open to new experiences.
It doesn’t take a lot of fuss to add exercise to your life. Just a few exercises done at home can boost your fitness level and make some initial improvements in strength, flexibility, endurance, and enjoyment.
Here are six simple movements that can get you started:
Lunges will strengthen your legs, hips, and core while elevating your heart rate and challenging your balance.
- From an upright position, step forward with one leg, bending both knees as you bring the back knee toward the floor. Keep your chest high and shoulders over hips.
- Push back on the front leg to return to a starting position.
- Alternate your lead leg 20 times.
Pushups strengthen the arms, shoulders, and core muscles.
- Start in a plank position, facing the floor with your hands about shoulder width, or a bit wider. Your knees can be bent and resting on the floor, or you can straighten them for more challenge.
- Tighten your belly to keep your body in a straight line as you bend and straighten your arms, lowering your chest toward the floor.
- Do 10–15 repetitions.
The bodyweight squat strengthens the legs, hips, and core and can be easily modified to include more weight by holding dumbbells or a kettlebell.
- Stand with your legs about shoulder width apart. Keeping your chest high, bend at the hips and reach your bum down and back, as if you were going to sit in a chair.
- Push into the floor as you rise back to standing, 15 times.
The bird dog strengthens shoulders, hips, back, and abdominals.
- Start in a quadruped position, on your hands and knees. Extend one arm and the opposite leg, trying to make a long line diagonally from the fingertips of one hand to the toes of the opposite leg. This movement should initiate from the glutes and shoulders rather than arms and legs.
- Keep your core engaged to maintain stable posture. Then, lower your arm and leg back to the starting position. Alternate sides 20 times.
This exercise strengthens the muscles of the hips, abdominals, and thighs.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your heels close to your buttocks. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart. It may help to hold a ball or yoga block between your knees to keep the inner thighs engaged.
- Push into your feet and contract your glute muscles to lift the hips until you have made a diagonal line from knees to shoulders. Slightly tuck your pelvis to keep from arching your back.
- Keep your belly tight as you lower your hips back to the floor. Repeat for a total of 20 repetitions.
The dead bug strengthens and stabilizes your abdominals, shoulders, and hips.
- Lie on your back, tighten your stomach, and float your legs and arms up, reaching for the ceiling. Your legs should be bent to 90° and your arms straight up.
- Reach one arm overhead and lower the opposite foot toward the floor, moving the knee away from you. Lower until your hand and foot almost touch the ground, or as low as you can without arching your back or losing your abdominal contraction.
- Return to the starting position and then alternate sides for a total of 20 repetitions.
It’s easier than ever to not move nowadays and this can be especially true for teens. The benefits of healthy movement, however, have not changed. Finding ways to incorporate enjoyable movement in our lives can have health benefits to enhance the quality of life, as well as the mental and physical health of our teens for years to come.