Making Fitness "Click" for Teens

The question is, how can we empower and motivate children to keep exercising throughout their teen years? One way to get kids off the couch is to reach them where they already spend their time -- online.
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The explosive growth of social media, smartphones and other digital devices has transformed the way children live today. A recent CNN article reported that by the time American children are two years old, more than 90 percent of them have an online history and at five, more than half regularly interact with a computer or tablet device. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that eight to 18-year-olds spend an average of 7.5 hours using entertainment media per day, or more than 53 hours a week.

With all of the devices and social media platforms available to kids these days, it's no wonder that they are becoming more and more inactive. From Xbox to Angry Birds, children have an enormous range of options that promote a sedentary lifestyle -- and it's a lot easier to spend free time following friends online than to get to the gym.

Numerous studies have found that the health habits people establish as children set the tone for their behavior as adults, which is why it's especially important to combat inactive lifestyles early on. In school, children can be involved in a myriad of physical activities -- physical education classes, soccer teams, swimming and dance lessons and more. But as children, especially minority girls, become teenagers and parents grow less involved, there is usually a drop-off in this activity. As a result, according to the American Heart Association, about one-third of students in grades 9-12 don't get recommended levels of physical activity and research shows that these patterns persist into adulthood.

The question is, then, how can we empower and motivate children to keep exercising throughout their teen years? One way to get kids off the couch is to reach them where they already spend their time -- online. Since our technology-driven culture breeds a generation of kids who are attached to their gadgets, why not use these devices to promote healthy habits? The immediate, widespread and interactive nature of digital technology provides great potential to engage with youth about their health and wellness in relevant and fun ways.

The YMCA of Greater New York's Y-MVP program supports this idea through "gamification," the premise of applying game theory and mechanics in a nongaming context in order to engage young people. The Y-MVP program uses points, badges, a leaderboard and timeline in hopes of inspiring teens to increase their daily levels of Moderate to Vigorous Physical activity. Teens participate by scanning their Y membership or Strong Kids card at their branch's Y-MVP kiosk, where they can browse activities and create "fitness playlists" to be completed in one or multiple days. After they've finished, teens log their exercises, share their workouts with friends online and save their favorite playlists for others to try out. Because Y-MVP is a social mediabased program, it encourages teens to create an online community of active peers who can talk about fitness and their healthy lifestyles. The Y-MVP was piloted this spring at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Y in Brooklyn and the Harlem Y, and is set to launch later this fall.

The Y-MVP program provides kids with a range of activities, from single day workouts to longer-term goals. For example, "Swim Like a Pro" challenges participants to swim four times for 30 minutes, plus incorporate crosstraining exercises into their workout over three weeks. The "Let's Move" challenge -- named after Michelle Obama's initiative -- urges teens to be active for 60 minutes, five days a week for six weeks.

As users log in, track their exercises and increase their training time, they earn virtual badges and accomplish fitness goals that may result in tangible rewards (e.g., t-shirts, water bottles or access to fitness classes). The badge progression serves to empower kids to develop the knowledge and skills to take responsibility for their own personal fitness and celebrate their accomplishments. The Y hopes that Y-MVP will give kids an understanding of the long-term benefits of daily exercise, rather than just ordering them to "Drop and give me twenty!"

Digital fitness is something that the Y and other youth organizations around the country should embrace as a way to motivate teens to start healthy habits early in life. You never know what will "click" with kids to help them make good health decisions.

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