While being less active while social distancing, you may be tempted to try those online workout classes for yourself and/or your adolescent. Here’s why your adolescent should avoid them.   

Seems like all the gyms and trainers are online and easily accessible right now. Which is pretty cool, but that doesn’t mean you or your adolescent needs to access them. In fact, I don’t think your adolescent should be accessing them at all.

This past summer I was working as a lifeguard in a day camp. An 8-year-old was swimming and jumping and having a lot of fun in the pool, when out of the blue, she turned and asked me “is swimming exercise? I don’t like exercise”. As if to say that despite currently enjoying herself, if she was actually “working out” she would no longer like it! She had already made the association that exercise is bad; a punishment at worst, something to be endured at best.

Why did she have this negative association? Probably because someone had told her she needed to do exercise to control her weight. And it obviously wasn’t an enjoyable experience, which then tainted her experience with ALL forms of physical activity.

Let’s differentiate between these words (note; these are not official definitions, just the way I’m using them)

  • Exercise or working out- formal or structured activity. Perhaps done with an instructor. Probably requires specific clothing
  • Physical activity or activity- any movement, whether structured or part of daily living.

The International Consensus Conference on Physical Activity Guidelines for Adolescents recommends that all adolescents should regularly be physically active as part of their lifestyles, plus 20 minutes of more vigorous activity three times a week. You know what? Most adolescents are meeting this! (fewer girls meet the second guideline, but that’s another conversation about girls’ self esteem and how girls stop doing activities they enjoy as they reach puberty)

I’m not comfortable with the idea of kids “working out”. It reminds me of a 9-year-old client doing sit ups in her bedroom at night, and a 14-year-old pacing around her house to meet her step count goal. It becomes prescriptive, like a job and not enjoyable. And adolescents still deserve to enjoy being active (you do too!!). Besides, the guideline above says it’s only 20 minutes of moderate exertion beyond their typical activity. That’s like riding a bike up a hill (not even super steep), playing some one-on-one basketball, or jumping rope. So yes, kids need to be active, but it doesn’t need to be structured activity like a workout video or joining a sports team.

Kids are more easily able to move intuitively. Yes, they’re (usually) sitting at desks at school, but they have recess/movement breaks, they’ll often walk to school, and there’s usually a greater social aspect to being active (think neighborhood bike groups, scooter clubs, games of tag, hopscotch etc.). And honestly, kids are so much more active than we think. Have you seen those TikTok dances? They take a lot of practice to master!

What’s the purpose of “working out”?

If it’s to manage your adolescent’s weight, that’s not going to work. Read this post about adolescent weight gain.  Trying to change your adolescent’s weight is risky! And that goes for altering diet AND ALSO physical activity.

Exercise is stressful on the body. So while being active is useful for releasing excess energy, improving mood and as a technique for managing anxious thoughts and feelings, it still affects the body. That’s why it’s important to find activity your adolescent enjoys, so there isn’t added stress beyond what we’re voluntarily doing.

How can your adolescent stay active?

If you’re able to leave the house- all the things! Walking, biking, climbing, dancing, etc. whatever your adolescent enjoys doing. This is especially beneficial- being outdoors is relaxing for the body and can help regulate mood, so being active outdoors is a double-wammy of feeling better emotionally. 

If you’re totally stuck in the house, here are some ideas.
  • Have a dance party, you may even consider a video call with friends and do it together
  • There’s those TikTok dances I mentioned earlier 🙂 
  • Musical chairs
  • Stretching
  • And if all else fails, and your adolescent WANTS, find an online exercise class that is fun, that doesn’t mention weight loss, body image or earning or deserving food, and do it together if you’re able.

Here are some recommendations: 

  • Fitness Marshall on YouTube has fun dance workouts
  • Cosmic Yoga on YouTube (this is likely better for the younger ones)
  • National Ballet of Canada (@nationalballet) has free Instagram live classes given by their dancers 

Structured activity may be useful right now when space is limited, and intuitive movement may be difficult to find. BUT it’s super important to remember:

  • Let your adolescent choose the activity
  • This activity is not to control weight or counter any extra eating that may be happening now
  • Take rest days. Remember what I said about putting the body in a stressful state? This helps you heal!
  • Make sure adolescents are not going overboard with their activity and have other ways of managing and coping with their feelings and emotions