I’m often asked by parents how to help their adolescent be more active. They’re concerned about weight gain, excessive screen time, and general inactivity.

While these are valid concerns, your adolescent does NOT need to be “working out”, and in fact, that can even be harmful. 

How active should adolescents be?

 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, it can easily become obsessive, and is not enjoyable.

And adolescents 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.

Adolescent girl joyfully moving by climbing a tree

Exercise vs 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

This is formal or structured activity. Perhaps done with an instructor. Probably requires specific clothing

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Physical activity or activity

Any movement, whether structured or part of daily living.

I was recently walking in a park when I came across a group of adolescents (around aged 8-12) working out with a coach. They had their resistance bands, weights, and mats, and were targeting specific body parts with each movement.

And they looked miserable.

Farther along the path I met several kids and teens running gleefully up and down hills with their family and friends, crossing a stream on the rocks, and having so much enjoyment in the cool spring day.

This is the difference between “working out” and “being active”.

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!

Group of adolescent boys skateboarding

Consider 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.

What’s the issue about adolescents working out?

It stresses the body

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.

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It can become obsessive and compulsive

There are multiple risks when exercise is done compulsively or obsessively. These include injuries, social isolation, weight loss, negative self-worth, possible loss of period, and general negative emotions of shame, guilt, and more.

I have spoken with so many teens and tweens who started working out to “get healthy” or as a competition with friends, and got sucked into compulsive exercise. And it took lots of support and effort to break free of it. 

It creates a negative association with activity 

A few summers ago 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.

Adolescent girls on their scooters

How can your adolescent stay active?

Let your adolescent choose the activity 

Give them some ownership of how they want to move. This may not always work, and you’ll need to lead, but try to get some input.

Make movement part of the family culture

Part of my growing up was weekend walks in “the dog park”. Vacations naturally included hiking, biking, and boating. There wasn’t a question about participating because that’s “just what we did”. 

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You can create a family environment where movement is “just what you do”. Not because you need to, but because you enjoy it and it’s a way to connect with your adolescent.

Make movement fun

Make this an enjoyable time, not a chore or something to be checked off at the end the day. 

This might mean you don’t track your activity, as that can make it more prescriptive and less intuitive and joyful. 

Separate movement from weight and food

Physical activity is not to control weight or counter any extra eating that may happen. Regardless of your appearance or amount eaten, movement has healthful benefits. AND all food can be eaten whether or not you have moved that day. Your adolescent’s food intake should not be dependent on their activity level. 

Take rest days

Remember what I said about putting the body in a stressful state? Rest days ensure your body has time to heal!

Find alternate ways of coping

Make sure your adolescent doesn’t go overboard with their activity and they have other ways of managing and coping with their feelings and emotions.

 

Think outside the typical activities

Whether it’s due to bad weather, inaccessibility to safe outdoors, or just something to do at home, here are some ideas for getting active indoors.

  • Have a dance party together
  • There’s those TikTok dances I mentioned earlier 🙂 
  • Musical chairs
  • Pillow fight
  • Stretching

 

Being physically active is important for adolescents and has many benefits. When done in a safe and intuitive way, adolescents can prevent obsession and compulsively exercising, and experience the joy of moving in a way that connects with their body.