Attention all parents of adolescents: Does your teen get at least 60 minutes of exercise every day (1)? In an age when kids can conduct their social life by text message, working out nothing but their thumbs, motivating them to stay active can be an uphill battle. Also, a parent nagging them to get up and do something may raise a rebellion in these increasingly independent young people, especially if they are already sensitive about being overweight or lacking skills in organized sports. Helping older children live healthfully without stepping on their self-esteem is a delicate matter. But finding a way to support teens in getting or staying active is critically important. The obesity rate among U.S. kids aged two to 19 is about 17 percent -- triple the rate in 1980 (2). And yet only 25 percent of kids in grades nine through 12 reported getting even 30 minutes of exercise per day in a recent study (3). May is National Sports and Physical Fitness Month. What a perfect time to assess your family's exercise practices, and try some fun new activities, together or individually.
A Turning Point for Lifelong Health
Why is it so important to keep these kids on the move? Because 85 percent of obese teens will become obese adults. Research shows that teens' activity level is a strong predictor of whether they will be overweight or obese as adults. In a 2008 study, researchers found that each day adolescent participants spent in physical education decreased their odds of being overweight adults by five percent. Those who had PE five days a week decreased their odds of obesity by 28 percent (4). Adolescent bodies may also still be creating new fat cells. The body's number of fat cells seems to be set by late childhood and adolescence. Adults who lose weight later in life are not able to reduce the number of fat cells they have -- only the size of those cells, depending on whether or not the cells are storing excess fat (5). Staying active and eating right in childhood can affect the final number of fat cells a person will have for life.
Exercise to the Rescue
The good news is that there's strong proof that exercise will help. Exercise is proven to reduce risk of heart disease, diabetes and related ailments among every age group. It strengthens the heart, bones, muscles, and ligaments, and it lifts our mood. Some kids are genetically predisposed to being obese, but even they can overcome some of the effects of that genetic equation through exercise (6). Starting well before the teenage years can also make a difference. In a study in Iowa, kids engaging in greater amounts of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at age 5 were found to have lower body mass at age 11 than their peers who were less physically active in the early school years (7).
Help Teens Step It Up
Between curriculum pressures and budget cuts, many high schools have reduced or eliminated physical education classes. Teens who play sports and exercise on their own can likely maintain their health, but others will have a tougher time. The secret lies in helping these kids find something they like to do, something that doesn't seem like a workout or a sport to them. In the 2008 study that looked at adolescents' obesity rates as adults, the group that reduced its risk the most -- by 48 percent -- were kids who skated, skateboarded or biked. Those activities are social, easy to learn and do not have to be competitive to be enjoyed. If there is a game or sport your teens enjoy with friends, help them make it a priority and schedule other activities around it. Your family may already spend time playing and working together, and that's great. If not, it's time to try it. On the next family trip or picnic, try to include volleyball, a game of catch or a challenging hike. Even if kids complain at first or are slow to join in, don't back down. And set a good example every day. If your teens see you trying new sports or regularly working out at a gym or pool, they may not say a word about your dedication, but they will notice. Another important factor is your role as disciplinarian. Make firm rules about the amount of TV time and online entertainment time allowed in the house, and be a strong enforcer. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, U.S. kids aged 8 to 18 spend an average of four hours per day watching television, and two more hours on video and computer entertainment. To no one's surprise, kids who spend more than four hours per day watching TV are more likely to be overweight (8). Pull the plug! You still have the opportunity to impact your teens' health, and it will pay off over their entire lifetime.
Have you found a way to get your adolescent kids moving? Share it in the comments.
Learn more about the benefits of exercise:
TheVisualMD.com: Get Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise
1. The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
3. The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports
4. Menschik D, Ahmed S, Alexander MH, et al. Adolescent physical activities as predictors of young adult weight. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008;162:29-33.
5. Spalding KL, Amer E, Westermark PO, et al. Dynamics of fat cell turnover in humans. Nature. 2008;453:783-787.
6. Ruiz JR, Labayen I, Ortega FB, et al. Attenuation of the effect of the FTO rs9939609 polymorphism on total and central body fat by physical activity in adolescents: the HELENA Study. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2010;164:328-333.
7. Janz KF, Kwon S, Letuchy EM, et al. Sustained effect of early physical activity on body fat mass in older children. Am J Prev Med. 2009;37:35-40.
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