Teen fitness is critical for physical and mental health, just as it is for younger kids and for adults. And also just like their parents and their little brothers and sisters, adolescents need 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily to stay healthy. Exercise even has particular benefits for pre-teens and teens. It can:
- Reduce anxiety, stress, and depression
- Improve self-esteem
- Boost academic performance
- Help establish lifelong healthy habits
That's in addition to the way fitness helps teens manage their weight, build muscle strength and bone mass, and control blood pressure.
Pretty convincing! And yet rates of physical activity tend to decline as kids get older. They're busier with school and friends, they are easily discouraged if they feel their performance doesn't measure up to their peers, and puberty can make them feel ashamed of their bodies.
Since only a fraction of middle and high schools provide daily physical education classes (let alone recess!), pre-teens and teens need lots of opportunities for fitness outside of school hours:
Team sports: For kids this age, organized sports provide not only physical activity, but good friendships and lessons in teamwork, motivation, and staying organized. Most schools have many different sports options, both competitive and intramural. If your child's favorite sport isn't offered, check out recreational leagues and community centers.
Individual pursuits: Team play isn't for everyone. Some pre-teens and teens prefer activities they can practice on their own, such as running, biking, yoga, horseback riding, or snowboarding. If one of these is more your child's style, help her embrace and enjoy it!
Everyday play and movement: Outside of more organized workouts, plenty of other physical activities can contribute to meeting that daily 60-minute goal. Think housework, yardwork, biking to school, dancing, walking the dog, or playing tag with kids in the neighborhood.
What You Can Do
Parents who are physically active tend to have kids who are active, too. So strive to be a role model. Make time for exercise in your daily life and find family fitness activities to share (such as a Saturday picnic at a park—pack jump ropes and Frisbees along with the sandwiches and lemonade).
Support your teen's fitness endeavors. Yes, driving to practices and games can be a drag, but you may be able to set up a carpool with other parents. If equipment costs and team fees are prohibitive, talk with the coach or school guidance counselor about scholarships and sources for used gear. If you don't have a backyard or nearby park, consider a membership at a YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, or other fitness facility.
Celebrate your athlete's achievements. Tell your child how proud you are! Go to games and display trophies and medals. Kids notice.
Limit screen time—television, computer, and video games. Too much sedentary activity (more than 2 hours a day) crowds fitness activities out of your child's schedule.
Ortega, F.B., Ruiz, J.R., Castillo, M.J., Sjöström, M. Physical fitness in childhood and adolescence: a powerful marker. International Journal of Obesity (2008). 32, 1–11; doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803774.
School Health Policies and Programs Study (2006). Physical Activity. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.