Convincing teens to be active and maintain their physical health is a challenge—when do teens listen to anything their parents say? But it’s critical for their health throughout their lives.
“Eating a healthy diet and exercising are the two things that will have the biggest impact on their health as adults,” says UNC Health pediatrician Edward Pickens, MD. “If they get into the habit of being active when they’re young, they’re more likely to be active as adults. My goal is to try and help them be as healthy at age 50 as they are at 15.”
The activity doesn’t matter, as long as your teen is getting 25 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day. That’s the kind that gets your heart pumping: Walking, running, hiking, basketball, biking, swimming, dancing, tennis, skating and soccer are all good options.
“Anything is good if it gets them moving and gets their heart rate up,” Dr. Pickens says. “And it should be fun. If it’s tedious, they’re not going to stick with it. A lot of teens would rather do something different every day, and that’s fine.”
Teenage Years Set the Stage for Future Fitness
The teen years are an important time of life to build muscle, says UNC Wellness Center personal trainer Jake Orndorff.
“Their hormone production is off the charts, which is the best time to build muscle mass,” he says. “They’ll be better able to maintain a lean body mass as they get older.”
Muscle mass helps increase metabolism, he says, which may help them avoid obesity as adults.
Whatever activity or group of activities your teen does, they need to get in shape to prevent injury. That’s where proper conditioning comes in, Orndorff says.
“You can’t just watch a video of somebody ziplining and go right out and be good at it,” he says. “You have to get your body ready.”
Exercises such as pushups, squats, pullups and lunges provide resistance training, which builds muscle strength and mass.
“Most teens are tight because they’re sitting so much, especially during school,” Orndorff says. “Stretching and strength training can help.”
If possible, teens should ask a coach or fitness trainer to watch them move and help them improve their form.
If a knowledgeable coach isn’t available, then a friend, teammate or parent may be able to help. Also, trying movements in front of a mirror could provide good feedback.
Resources are available online, too. For example, UNC Wellness Centers has a video library of classes and tutorials on exercising, nutrition, and mindfulness and meditation.
Motivating Teenagers to Exercise
Some teens might like going for a jog with Mom or competing with Dad on the exercise bike, but don’t be offended if they’d rather be active with friends or on their own. It’s developmentally normal for teens to want space from their parents, Dr. Pickens says.
Teens who play sports might be motivated to work out so they can make a team or play first string. Coaches, older siblings and other mentors can introduce teens to activities they haven’t tried before.
Avoid using appearance or weight loss as a motivator, because this will lead to unhealthy associations for your child that can last a lifetime, Dr. Pickens says. Focus on exercise as a way to strengthen their body and make sure it works as well as possible, not to be a certain size.
While teens may not want to listen to their parents’ advice about the benefits of exercising, they are watching.
“It’s easier to show kids the benefits of exercising than to tell them,” Orndorff says. “You have to practice what you’re trying to preach.”
Exercising is good for the body and mind, for both teens and adults.
“Exercise can be a great way to help improve your mental health,” Orndorff says. “Some kids never turn off the social media. I think it’s a good idea to shut it all down and let your nervous system have a break.”
Need help getting your child moving? Talk to your child’s doctor or find one near you.