How to help your teen move

Editor’s note: Before starting any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you feel pain.


It’s no secret that exercise is important to your health, regardless of your age. And it’s tempting to think that kids have no problem being active. After all, the school has gym class, recess for the little ones, and organized sports – lots of organized sports. But children, and especially teenagers, are much less active than you think.

Adolescents should do at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, according to the World Health Organization. However, a 2019 study published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health found that less than 20% of school-going adolescents worldwide are doing this much activity, with girls being less active than boys. In the United States, this figure is slightly higher, with 24% of children aged 6 to 17 being physically active for 60 minutes a day, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What is behind these grim numbers? Many things The appeal of organized sports is fading, mainly due to the ever-increasing costs, time commitment and often hyper-competitiveness. Just 38 percent of children ages 6 to 12 participated in an organized sport in 2018, down from 45 percent in 2008, according to the Aspen Institute. The Covid-19 pandemic may have further accelerated the downward trend, the Aspen Institute wrote in its State of Play 2021 report.

Then there is technology. Nearly half of U.S. teens say they are online “almost constantly,” according to a Pew Research Center study, up from 24% in 2014-2015. And recess and outdoor play time are no longer mandated in most schools, said Carol Harrison, senior clinical exercise physiologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Also, today, more children are taken to school than before, when they walked or cycled.

“A lot of kids also come home to a house where both parents haven’t gotten home from work yet,” Harrison said. “As a result, they often end up playing on computers and watching TV, which very often means eating unhealthy snacks.”

Experts say this lack of movement is worrying, and not just from a weight perspective. In addition to improving your heart, muscles, bones and metabolic health, regular exercise helps improve your coordination and agility, and the resulting increased blood flow is also helpful for the brain.

“Studies have shown that children who participate in daily physical activity do better with focus and attention, which leads to better academic performance,” she said. “It also helps with impulse control and better emotion management.”

How do you get your teenager to break a sweat? Although it can often be a challenge, there are many ways to incorporate more physical activity into children’s lives.

No one wants to be told to get out there and start running. Instead, find activities that you can all enjoy together. It can be as simple as a family bike ride, a beanbag raffle, or a trip to the park with friends. On your days off, plan a camping trip where a daily swim, hike or rowing session is on the agenda.

“Focus on the fun,” Harrison said. “With most kids, fun is an essential ingredient.” The social aspect as well. “Research has shown that the number one reason most adults start and continue an exercise program is the social component,” she said. “Children are the same.”

Organized sports are good for helping teens build social connections and learn perseverance and teamwork. But some programs are more about winning and less about building skills. If your teen is eager to master a particular sport, a competitive program may be a good fit. But teenagers participating in organized sports for fun and socialization prefer a less competitive environment.

Keep in mind that coaches play a big role in a team’s activity level, said Jennifer Agans, assistant professor of recreation, parks and tourism management at Penn State University Park. Some have inactive practices where players can spend a lot of time listening to instructions or waiting in line to take their turn at a basketball shooting drill.

Not all children will enjoy organized sports, especially if they are not competitive. But maybe they enjoyed rock climbing, skateboarding or the performing arts. “My entry point was youth circus,” Agans said, “and trapeze is a growing youth activity today.”

Climbing is a great alternative activity for teenagers, especially those without organized sports.

There’s dance, yoga, martial arts, ultimate frisbee, badminton, pickleball and more. Currently trending: virtual reality exercise, something Agans said will likely be prominent in the future. Research already shows that it has the potential to have a positive effect on physical activity.

Exercise does not strictly equate to sport. Chores burn calories, for example, so assign your kids according to the age they require the most movement. Think mowing or vacuuming rather than dusting or drying dishes. Starting a garden is another good option, says Harrison, which involves planting, watering, weeding and more.

Jobs like mowing the lawn are for teenagers to work up a sweat and burn some calories.

Competitions can promote activity. Challenge your teen to see who can run the fastest, do the most sit-ups, or take the most steps. Use small gifts as rewards. And don’t forget volunteer work, which often involves a lot of movement. Maybe they can participate in a trail building event or help someone pack and move boxes.

If teens suddenly show no interest in an activity they normally enjoy, sit them down to talk. Maybe their lack of interest in swimming is because they’re suddenly embarrassed to be seen in a bathing suit, Agans said. Or maybe they want to quit soccer because a new teammate is making fun of them, or they don’t have a friend on the team this year.

“Such interpersonal restrictions can prevent people from doing the activities they want,” she said, so don’t assume your teen has suddenly lost motivation to get moving. Something else could happen.

Also watch for signs of exercise addiction, which involves excessive exercise and is often linked to eating disorders. Signs of compulsive exercise include losing a lot of weight, exercising more after eating a lot or missing a workout, and refusing to skip a workout even when you’re tired, sick, or injured.

As teens find activities they enjoy, make sure they consider all the positives from increased movement, whether it’s stronger muscles, better sleep, or higher energy levels. This can help on days when motivation is lost, which happens to both children and adults.

“Kids can learn to be excited about moving,” Agans said. “As young adults, we have to put them on a path that has a basis for them to enjoy the movement that will lead them to find activity.”