With their rigorous schedules, teens experience sleep deprivation and rarely if ever get the eight to ten hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. They are also prone to gain weight due to the sleep deprivation, a surge in hormones and an increase in cortisol due to stress, making it more difficult for them to control urges and overeating.
For these plethora of reasons, it has become even more critical for teens to exercise. Enhancing their physical and psychological health through exercise can help teens to maintain a healthful lifestyle and counter the many daily stressful demands on them.
Why It’s Important to Exercise
Engaging in exercise has numerous physical and psychological benefits. It is known to boost academic performance. In one study, girls who exercised demonstrated a significant improvement in science performance, and at ages fifteen and sixteen, every additional seventeen minutes of exercise a day for boys and twelve minutes for girls was linked to better examination results.[i] In other studies, it significantly impacted memory, learning,[ii] and cognition.[iii] Exercise controls weight, boosts energy, and combats health conditions and disease.
Exercising also has many psychological benefits. Besides improving mood, decreasing anxiety,[iv] and increasing self-confidence, exercise stimulates brain chemicals called endorphins and neurotransmitters called serotonin that leave teens feeling more positive and energetic. It also reduces perception of pain (what’s personally challenging and emotionally uncomfortable), which directly impacts mood.[v] It positively affects body image, the belief in one’s ability to successfully complete tasks and accomplish goals (self-efficacy), and coping skills.[vi]
Finally, it promotes better sleep and helps teens fall asleep faster and it assists in deepening their sleep. There are also long term benefits of exercising as it extends life. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are physically active for about seven hours a week have a 40 percent lower risk of dying early than those who are active for less than thirty minutes a week.[vii]
How Much Exercise Do Teens Need?
According to the CDC and the US Department of Health and Human Services, children ages six to seventeen should do an hour or more of physical activity each day.[viii] Aerobic activity should make up most of this time each day. It can include a moderate or vigorous activity (at least three times a week), a muscle-strengthening activity like gymnastics or push-ups (three times a week) and a bone-strengthening activity like jumping rope or running (three times a week).
For example, a teen’s daily exercise regimen may include: a one-mile walk on a treadmill before school; a one-mile walk around the track during school lunch period; a one-mile walk after school with friends or the dog; sports team practice (basketball, soccer, hockey, etc.).
Even though the CDC and US Department of Health have given their recommendations, teens are still not getting nearly the amount of physical activity that they need. In 2013, only 17.7 percent of female high school students and 36.6 percent of male students were participating in at least sixty minutes of physical activity a day. Only 24 percent of females and 34.9 percent of males were attending physical education classes daily.[ix]
Even if teens desire more physical activity, there may be factors that get in the way of their involvement. Identifying these barriers is critical, as often misperceptions lead to inactivity. Teens may be perceived by others or see themselves as “lazy,” “unwilling,” or “not athletic.” These reasons are real to them and could strongly influence why they aren’t participating. Understanding and dismantling these barriers can make exercise more accessible to teens.
Factors That Impact Participation
There are biological, psychological, social, demographic, and physical environment influences that impact on a teen’s level of participation in exercising.[x] Males tend to exercise more than females, and if parents live an active lifestyle, their children are more likely to.[xi] Teens need to believe that time can be found to exercise and that the personal benefits outweigh the costs. One of strongest predictors is confidence regarding one’s ability to be active on a regular basis. Teens are also more likely to participate and continue participating if they enjoy what they are doing.[xii]
Amount of exertion was another influence for teens.[xiii] They prefer activities with lower levels of exertion, and dropout rates are higher from vigorous activity than from moderate-intensity activities.[xiv] Other determinants include whether friends and family are role models, encourage physical activity, actively participate with teens, and directly help them to be physically active.[xv]
In my focus groups, which were conducted for my book, Free Your Child From Overeating. 53 Mind-Body Strategies For Lifelong Health, parents reported three more things as being major deterrents for their children when it came to physical activity. They shared that if their children felt shame or insecurity about their appearance they were less likely to participate, that there wasn’t a place for them to engage in physical activity if they were mediocre at sports, and that physical education isn’t offered enough at school.
Parents unanimously reported that when they attended middle and high school, they engaged in more physical activity than their children currently do. Also, by the time their children came home from school, had a bit of downtime, and finished their homework, they were exhausted and didn’t have enough time to fit anything else in.
Teens are often confronted by situations that provoke shame regarding their weight and body size. In the focus groups I conducted, overweight teens (and many who were average weight, too) reported feeling most humiliated at school when they were forced to take fitness tests, as well as on an ongoing basis when they changed for gym class because of the expectation that they dress in shorts and tank tops. This made them feel insecure and embarrassed, and they found themselves comparing themselves to other students who they perceived as thinner, more attractive, or more fit. All of these factors deterred them from wanting to participate.
Why do some kids stop exercising or never even start? Today’s kids are 15 percent less aerobically fit than their parents were at their age.[xvi] Competitive sports are one of the factors contributing to this statistic. When I was in high school, people could still walk on to a varsity team if they were willing to put in the time and effort. Now, that’s rarely the case, as so many kids begin competitive training as early as preschool and continue with that level of intensity well into elementary, middle, and high school.
For everyone else, it’s often not enough anymore to just have fun playing a sport; most athletics for kids are organized and competitive. So where does that leave the rest of the kids and teens who are not skilled athletes? Or who like a sport but who may never be good enough to make the team? Or who don’t even bother trying because they’re anxious or intimidated from the outset? It’s unfortunate that our kids are being socialized to believe that sports are more about competition than for having fun and engaging in a physical activity that promotes good health.
In activities such as tennis, gymnastics, swim, dance, etc., kids often start when they are in preschool or grammar school and advance as they get older. If a child discovers an interest in a sport in adolescence, it may require him to take classes or lessons with children much younger than he is. For example, at thirteen, my son decided to transition from skiing to snowboarding. His choices narrowed to taking lessons with adults who were beginners or had never skied, expensive private lessons, or joining a group of seven- and eight-year-olds who were beginners, which he opted to do. If it weren’t for his eight-year-old brother taking lessons at the time, he would have opted out and kept with skiing, thereby missing out on learning a new sport that he was interested in.
After analyzing kids’ fitness for forty-six years, researchers have found that children’s cardio endurance has decreased by 5 percent every decade.[xvii] If this trend continues, future generations are at grave risk of being more overweight and having more cardiovascular-related diseases. Because kids and teens spend most of their waking hours at school, it’s a natural place where they should be engaging in physical activity.
Exercising at School
There is no federal law that mandates physical education be provided in American schools. Individual states establish guidelines, but there is no uniformity in regard to the amount of PE required, class size, whether there are exceptions made, whether they follow a state curriculum, whether a fitness assessment is required, how fitness is assessed, whether the grade is included in the student’s grade point average (GPA), whether body mass index (BMI) is calculated, whether PE teachers need a certification or license, and whether they have a district PE coordinator. All these factors vary from state to state.[xviii] There are also no state PE requirements for private schools. The lack of firm requirements reduces the likelihood that schools will adhere to the guidelines.[xix]
My research exposed glaring issues that came up regarding certain requirements that impact kids’ and teens’ physical activity participation. The state of New York, where I conducted my research, requires a student assessment in PE in grades 1 through 12. This assessment typically includes exercises for flexibility, upper body muscle strength and endurance, abdominal muscle strength and endurance, aerobic endurance, and body composition.
For many overweight kids and teens I spoke to, this process is extremely anxiety-inducing. They felt anxiety anticipating the assessment and shame and humiliation during the process, and often reported experiencing name-calling or bullying by their peers during and after the assessment. Another reported issue was how PE instructors conveyed feedback to students about their assessment results and BMI. It was “gingerly” recommended that students participate more often in physical activity. When I asked if that was helpful in any way, unanimously these students reported that it wasn’t, because they didn’t have any support for following through with the recommendations, and they didn’t feel that there was a place for them to participate that would meet their fitness levels.
The national recommendation by the National Association of Sports and Physical Education (NASPE) and the American Heart Association is that elementary students be offered 150 minutes a week of physical education and middle and high school students 225 minutes per week throughout the school year. There’s good reason for these recommendations—the obvious benefits of exercise on focusing and learning. In some cases, inactivity in school and the difficulty with sitting still can also lead to improper diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).[xx]
Even with the evident benefits, only six states nationwide require the recommended 150 minutes of elementary school–based PE. In forty-one states, middle school PE is mandated, and in forty-four states, high school PE is mandated.[xxi] In New York, where I reside, for grades 7–12, the regulations require PE three times per week in one semester and twice per week in the second.[xxii] Each period extends on the average for forty to forty-five minutes.
Assuming the schools are adhering to the requirements, teens are only getting on the average eighty to 135 minutes of PE per week. This number is exceedingly lower than the national recommendations. And yet high school is a time when the need for exercise is even more critical—because of teens’ level of stress due to preparation for college, where they are at developmentally due to hormonal changes, and as the practice sets them up for healthy habits into adulthood.
For many years, schools have reduced or eliminated PE and sports programming given budget cuts and the greater emphasis on academic performance. When conducting my research, I spoke to PE directors in New York about the inadequate amount of time high school students in particular are getting for school-based PE. I was frequently told that there isn’t enough time because of academics and that there are athletic offerings at school (junior varsity, varsity, modified, intramurals, clubs, open gyms, etc.) that students can join to supplement their physical activity hours at school. They agreed that the students who need the physical activity the most are the unlikeliest ones to join the teams or take advantage of the resources because of feeling shameful, intimidated, or not physically fit enough, and expressed that it is an ongoing and enduring issue.
The Physical Environment & Social Determinants
A child’s physical environment also affects participation in physical activity—everything from the weather, safety outdoors near the home, and whether there are adequate resources in the neighborhood (parks, facilities, programs that are convenient and affordable, etc.). Social determinants are another factor: whether friends and family are role models, encourage physical activity, and actively participate and directly help kids and teens to be physically active.
Parents Being Proactive
Now that you have a sense of the many factors impacting a teen’s physical activity, you can assess their level of participation in general and what might be getting in their way. Then, you can work toward providing resources for them so they can increase their activity.
Teens are more likely to take on exercise as an ongoing practice if there is something personally meaningful that is driving their participation. Asking teens which benefits they personally connect to that represent why they would want to invest in exercise. Because young people are sensitive to the notions of values, social justice and autonomy, when they are made aware of this, they often make wiser choices.[xxiii]
They may feel passionate about playing sports and want to work on their performance by becoming better coordinated and more flexible (their value is sports/athleticism), or they may feel invested in their academic performance and want to improve their learning and memory (their value is learning/education).
Parents getting involved with their child’s exercise participation is key. Most kids and teens want their parents to be positive role models and desire that they are actively involved and are providing direct support.
Some Direct Ways Parents Can Help:
- Have equipment on hand that encourages physical activity (basketball hoops, soccer and hockey nets, etc.).
- Go to places that foster physical activity (parks, baseball fields, basketball courts, etc.).
- Remain positive and active in children’s sports activities.
- Encourage your child while they are participating and drive them to and from activities if they aren’t driving yet.
- Be respectful of who your child is and whether they prefer group or solo activities. As long as they participate, it doesn’t matter what their preference is.
- Show your child a variety of activities and enable them to choose what they enjoy doing. Make activities fun whether they are structured or unstructured. It could be doing a program on the elliptical machine or taking a hike in the woods near your home.
- Limit screen time (the recommendation is no more than two hours a day) and, whenever possible, encourage your child to play outdoors.
- If physical activity resources aren’t readily available in your neighborhood, drive, bike, or walk to gain access.
- If resources aren’t easily accessible at all or your child prefers to exercise in private or individually, use cost-effective or no-cost alternative methods that can be accessed at home, such as streaming videos, fitness apps, DVDs, etc.
- Reorganize your child’s schedule to include time for exercising. They may need to give something up or adjust their schedule.
- Identify what your child needs in order to remain organized and scheduled. There is greater chance for success when exercise is part of the routine and your child knows to expect it.
- Encourage your child to set SMART goals while exercising. This helps to diminish boredom so your child remains interested, challenged, and invested.
- Identify some forms of physical activity that appeal to your child. It should ideally be low to moderate intensity, not take a lot of time, and be convenient, relatively painless, and possibly fun or social. If your child feels embarrassed doing it, it is not for them. They will be less likely to stick to it in the long run.
- If your child is not interested in team sports, encourage them to select more individualized, less competitive, or noncompetitive activities, like tennis, horseback riding, jumping rope, catching and throwing a ball, shooting baskets, riding a bike, etc.
- When your child starts exercising, consider hiring a personal trainer so your child can learn proper form, alignment, and exercise safety. You can arrange for this at home, at a gym (usually restricted to teens 16 and older), or at a private studio. You could check local listings in your area or ask for a referral.
- Keep a range of activities in mind so your child has options for the amount of time they have, and account for things like the weather, availability of friends, etc.
- Encouraging your child to participate in physical activity but don’t force them to participate.
- Always take into consideration how convenient it will be to perform the activity and how much time it will take.
Exponentially, overtime, the lives of our teens have become more stressful. There is an increasing need for teens to engage in exercising, but unfortunately for most teens, their physical activity needs are not currently being met. We have a responsibility to react to this growing need and ensure that resources are in place in our homes, in their schools and within our communities. We must all work together to ensure that this happens.
[i] Booth, J.N, Leary, S.D., Joinson, C., et al. (2013). “Associations Between Objectively Measured Physical Activity and Academic Attainment in Adolescents from a UK Cohort.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, published online October 21, 2013.
[ii] Whiteman, H. (2013). “Aerobic Fitness Boosts Memory and Learning in Children.” medicalnewstoday.com, September 12, 2013.
[iii] Sibley, B.A., and Etnier, J.L. (2003). “The Relationship Between Physical Activity and Cognition in Children: A Meta-Analysis.” Pediatric Exercise Science, 15, 243–56.
[iv] Martikainen, S., Pesonen, A.K., Lahti, J., et al. (2013). “Higher Levels of Physical Activity Are Associated with Lower Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical Axis Reactivity to Psychosocial Stress in Children.” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 98(4), E619–27.
[v] WebMD (2014). “Exercise and Depression.” webmd.com.
[vi] Baker, C.W., and Brownell, K.D. (2000). “Physical Activity and Maintenance of Weight Loss: Physiological and Psychological Mechanisms.” In Bouchard, C., ed., Physical Activity and Obesity, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, pp. 311–28.
[vii] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Physical Activity and Health: The Benefits of Physical Activity.” cdc.gov.
[viii] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “How Much Physical Activity Do Children Need?” cdc.gov.
US Department of Health and Human Services (2008). 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services. health.gov/PAguidelines/guidelines/default.aspx.
[ix] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2013.” Morbidity and Mortatlity Weekly Report (MMWR), 63(4).
[x] Sallis, J.F. (2014). “Influences on Physical Activity of Children, Adolescents, and Adults.” PCPFC Research Digest, 1(7). presidentschallenge.org/informed/digest/docs/199408digest.pdf.
[xi] McKenzie, T.L., Sallis, J.F, Nader, P.R., et al. (1992). “Anglo and Mexican-American Preschoolers at Home and at Recess: Activity Patterns and Environmental Influences.” Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 13(3), 173–80.
[xii] Stucky-Ropp, R.C., and DiLorenzo, T.M. (1993). “Determinants of Exercise in Children.” Preventive Medicine, 22, 880–89.
[xiii] Epstein, L.H., Smith, J.A., Vara, L.S., and Rodefer, J.S. (1991). “Behavioral Economic Analysis of Activity Choice in Obese Children.” Health Psychology, 10(5), 311–16.
[xiv] Dishman, R.K., Sallis, J.F., and Orenstein, D.R. (1994). “Determinants and Interventions for Physical Activity and Exercise.” In C. Bouchard, R.J. Shephard, and T. Stephens (Eds.), Physical Activity, Fitness, and Health: International Proceedings and Consensus Statement, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, pp. 214–38.
[xv]Sallis, J.F., Prochaska, J.J., and Taylor, W.C. (2000). “A Review of Correlates of Physical Activity of Children and Adolescents.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 32(5), 963–75.
[xvi] American Heart Association (2013). “Children’s Cardiovascular Fitness Declining Worldwide.” American Heart Association Meeting Report: Abstract 13498, November 19, 2013.
Paddock, C. (2013). “Children Less Fit Than Their Parents.” medicalnewstoday.com, November 19, 2013.
[xviii] National Association for Sport and Physical Education and American Heart Association (2012). 2012 Shape of the Nation Report: Status of Physical Education in the USA. Reston, VA: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.
[xix] McCullick, B.A., Baker, T., Tomporowski, P.D., et al. (2012). “An Analysis of State Physical Education Policies.” Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 31(2), 200–210.
[xx] Strauss, V. (2014). “Why So Many Kids Can’t Sit Still in School Today.” Washington Post, July 8, 2014.
Strauss, V. (2014). “A Therapist Goes to Middle School and Tries to Sit Still and Focus. She Can’t. Neither Can the Kids.” Washington Post, December 13, 2014.
[xxi] McCullick, Baker, and Tomporowski, “An Analysis of State Physical Education Policies.”
[xxii] New York State. “Part 135: Health, Physical Education and Recreation.” In Official Compilation of Codes, Rules and Regulations of the State of New York. p12.nysed.gov/ciai/pe/pub/part135.pdf. See Regulation 11.135.4(c)(2)(a).
[xxiii] Bryan, C. J., Yeager, D. S., Hinojosa, C. P., Chabot, A., Bergen, H., Kawamura, M., and Steubing, F. (2016). Harnessing adolescent values to motivate healthier eating. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 113 (39), 10830-10835. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1604586113
Ripley, A. (2016). Can teenage defiance be manipulated for good? The New York Times. September 12, 2016.