How to Help Your Teen Get More Exercise

The teenage years. What do you think of when you hear that phrase? Probably kids growing like weeds and busily exploring new things, and, because of this, being more active than they’ll ever be again.

But research released last June shows that this just isn’t true, at least not these days. The study, part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination survey, found something alarming: Physical activity peaks at age 6, then declines throughout childhood. Just how steeply does daily exercise decrease? By age 19, the average teen is as sedentary as a 60-year-old.

Blame the tech revolution for a lot of this, says Jane Diamond, a master personal trainer and certified health and wellness coach. Kids aren’t outside all day until dinner, the way that we, or our parents, were as kids. “Our society has changed into an information society,” she says. “We sit at computers, we play games, and we’re on our phones. Kids come home from school and go onto Facebook and Snapchat.” Add in a lot of scheduled time for things like after-school help, homework, and instrument lessons, and it’s easy to see why today’s teens aren’t movers and shakers, at least in the physical sense.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little prodding from you, your teen can adopt a more active lifestyle, one that will serve her well throughout her life. We asked exercise pros how to make it happen.

Household Help

There’s plenty you can do around the house to encourage your teen to exercise. “Create an environment that reflects the change you want,” Diamond says. Steps like these can make a big difference: 

Lead by example. Show your teen that you embrace workouts. Keep an exercise bag at the door for trips to the gym, tennis lessons, or whatever physical activity you pursue. Invite him to come along with you whenever possible. If he can’t accompany you, make a point of letting him see you come home feeling energized and raring to go. “A little bit of that does sink in,” Diamond says.

Load up your video game console with active games. “There are so many that make you exercise or dance,” Diamond says. And get in the game yourself. Tell your teen, “I want to play too!” If it’s a competitive game, throw down a challenge to amp up the excitement factor and keep the activity going longer. 

Wean from the screen. While workout-based video games are fine in moderation, try limiting the number of hours your teen spends on optional, nonacademic screen time. Designate certain times of day, such as mealtimes, to be phone-free, so she gets used to the idea of letting go of her trusty device. And make certain areas of your house no-phone zones—especially the bedrooms. Your teen may end up getting more sleep at night, which will give her more energy to exercise during the day.

Commercial-cize with your kids. When you do watch TV together, exercise together each time a commercial comes on, says Len Saunders, author of Keeping Kids Fit, who organizes programs on a national level for school-age kids regarding health and fitness. “If you watch a lot of TV, this can accumulate to a lot of exercise,” he says.

Create a mini indoor gym. “For about fifty dollars, you can get all the equipment you need,” Diamond says. She recommends buying an exercise ball, a jump rope, carpet sliders, and a couple of sets of small weights. These are all easy to use, and there’s an abundance of videos and articles on the web to show you all the things you can do with them.

Dole out some old-fashioned chores. Make your teen responsible for physical tasks around the house, such as sweeping the walkways, vacuuming the carpets, or mopping the kitchen floor. These responsibilities will get him off the sofa and onto his feet.

Create an exercise chart for the whole family, with built-in rewards for your teen. Set the goal of an hour a day of physical activity for each of you, and have your child mark her progress. The incentive can be anything that you know motivates her, such as extra allowance money or the chance to get you to finance her Friday night out with her pals.

Take It Outside

There are even more opportunities for exercise outside the house. Get your teen up, out, and at ’em with these tips.

Have the right outdoor equipment on hand, says Nedra Lopez, co-owner of P.E. Club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Hang a basketball hoop above your garage if you live in a house, and challenge your child to a quick game after school (or head to the nearest public court to do the same). Buy a set of orange cones for your yard or take them to the park and use them to play a simple game: Line up all the cones on one side of a patch of lawn, and challenge your kid to see which of you can pick up and rearrange the cones on the other side the fastest. Lopez is also a fan of resistance parachutes—small parachutes you strap around your waist that catch the wind as you run, creating muscle-building resistance. Want more fun? Invest in an agility ladder, which is a ladder-like device you lay on the ground. Play hopscotch with it, or check out YouTube videos of beginner agility ladder drills.

Sign up together for an athletic event for charity, says Sandy Liang, a trainer at Crunch in Manhattan. It can be as simple as a walk or as ambitious as a 5K you train for together, “and it also introduces your child to volunteer work,” Liang adds. 

Revisit your favorite childhood games. “Whether you played tennis or racquetball or something else, explore them together,” Lopez says. It’s a great opportunity for you to teach your child a sport you know, and it’s quality bonding time, too.

Have your teen walk the dog if you own one and your neighborhood is safe for a solo excursion. One recent study published in the journal BMC Public Health found that dog owners walk 22 more minutes per day than people without pooches.

Plan active outings—and tell your teen to invite a friend. Hiking in a state park with Mom and Dad? Lame. Hiking in a state park with Mom, Dad, and Hailey from bio class? Way cool. Pals are everything to kids at this age, so provide a chance for some buddy time along with exercise. “They’ll do a lot more when they’re with their own peers,” Liang notes.

Run errands without using a car, bus, or subway. If your destination is within walking distance, go on foot or by bicycle. “If you own bikes, get bike baskets so it’s easy to take purchases home,” Lopez says, “and if you’re going on foot, take along backpacks.”

Don’t be discouraged by bad weather. “There are so many wonderful indoor exercise facilities,” Diamond says. “There are places that you can go that have indoor skating, indoor rock climbing, basketball courts, tennis, and squash.”

Whichever strategy or strategies you use, set aside regular time for exercise, and make it a habit. “We didn’t wake up at age 2 able to go to the bathroom and brush our teeth on our own,” Diamond observes. “Someone taught us day in and day out. We practiced for years until it became so routine that we didn’t even think about it anymore, and exercise needs to become a habit, too.” With your help, your teen will get moving in the right direction, one healthy step at a time.


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