Editor’s note: Before starting any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you experience pain.
It’s no secret that exercise is important to your health, whatever your age. And it’s tempting to assume that kids have no problem staying active. After all, there is gym class at school, recess for the little ones, and organized sports, lots of organized sports. But children, and especially teenagers, are much less active than you think.
According to the World Health Organization, teenagers should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. However, a 2019 study published in the journal The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health showed that less than 20% of school-going teenagers worldwide are as active, with girls less active than boys. In the United States, that number is only slightly higher, with 24 percent of children ages 6 to 17 getting 60 minutes of physical activity a day, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What is behind these disastrous figures? Lots of things. The appeal of organized sports is fading, mainly due to their rising costs, time commitment and often hyper-competitive nature. Only 38 percent of 6- to 12-year-olds played an organized sport in 2018, down from 45 percent 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 is the technology. Nearly half of American teenagers say they are online “almost constantly,” according to a Pew Research Center study, compared to just 24 percent in 2014-2015. And outdoor recreation and playtime are no longer mandated in most schools, said Carol Harrison, a senior clinical exercise physiologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. In addition, more children are taken to school today than before, when they walked or cycled.
“A lot of kids also come home to a house where both parents haven’t gotten home from work yet,” Harrison said. “The result, very often, is playing on the computer and watching TV, which is often accompanied by eating unhealthy snacks.”
This lack of movement is concerning, experts say, and not just from a weight standpoint. In addition to improving heart, muscle, bone and metabolic health, regular exercise helps improve coordination and agility, and the resulting increased blood flow is also good for the brain.
“Studies have shown that children who participate in daily physical activity do better overall with attention and concentration, which translates into better academic performance,” she said. “It also helps with impulse control and better emotion management.”
How do you get your child to sweat? Although it can often be a challenge, there are many ways to introduce more physical activity into children’s lives.
No one wants to be told to get out and start running. Instead, look for activities that you can all enjoy together. This can be as simple as a family bike ride, a round of bag toss or a trip to the park with friends. On days off, schedule a camping trip, where a daily session of swimming, walking or rowing is on the agenda.
“Focus on the fun,” Harrison said. “With most kids, fun is a necessary ingredient.” So is the social aspect. “Studies have shown that the number one reason most adults start and continue an exercise program is the social component,” he said. “Children are equal.”
Organized sports are good for helping teens make social connections and learn perseverance and teamwork. But some programs are more focused on winning and less on building skills. If your teen has a desire to master a particular sport, a competitive program may be a good fit. But teens who play organized sports for fun and socialization may prefer a less competitive environment.
And keep in mind that coaches play a big role in a team’s activity level, said Jennifer Agans, an assistant professor in Penn State’s department of recreation, parks and tourism management in University Park, Pennsylvania. Some have less active practices, where players may spend a lot of time listening to instructions or waiting in line to take their turn in a basketball shooting drill.
Not all children will enjoy organized sports, especially if they are not competitive. But they might 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’s also dance, yoga, martial arts, ultimate frisbee, badminton, pickleball and more. Current trend: Virtual reality exercise, something Agans said will likely be prominent in the future. Studies already show that it has the potential to have a positive effect on physical activity.
Exercise is not strictly equivalent to sport. Chores burn calories, for example, so assign your kids age-appropriate ones that require more movement. Consider mowing the lawn or vacuuming instead of dusting or drying the dishes. Starting a garden is another good option, Harrison said, since gardens involve planting, watering, weeding and more.
Contests can also promote activity. Challenge your child to see who can run the fastest, do the most sit-ups, or walk the most steps each day or week. Use small gifts as rewards. And don’t forget volunteer work, which often involves a lot of movement. Maybe they can participate in a trail building event or help someone pack and move boxes.
If teens suddenly show no interest in an activity they normally enjoy, sit down and talk. Perhaps their lack of interest in swimming is because they are suddenly embarrassed to be seen in a bathing suit, Agans said. Or maybe they want to quit soccer because a new teammate is making fun of them, or they don’t have any friends on the team this year.
“Interpersonal limitations like these can prevent people from doing activities they enjoy doing,” she said, so don’t assume your teen has suddenly lost motivation to move. Something else could be going on.
Also watch for signs of exercise addiction, which involves excessive exercise and is often linked to 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 you’re tired, sick, or injured.
As teens find activities they enjoy, be sure to consider all the positives that result from their increased movement, whether it’s stronger muscles, better sleep, or higher energy levels. This can help them on days when their motivation wanes, which happens to children and adults alike.
“Kids can learn to be excited about moving,” Agans said. “We need to put them on a path where they have a foundation of enjoyment with movement that leads them to seek out activities as young adults.”