Many parents call it the best of times and the worst of times: adolescence! A time of energy, passion and emerging identity. Parents will also attest that special tact is required in guiding adolescents toward healthful lifestyles. In fact, many parents wonder whether there’s anything they can do to help their sons and daughters acquire healthy habits during this time when they are beginning to claim their independence.
Healthful eating habits and regular physical activity are important in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. They reduce a person’s risk for many chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure later in life. Since these illnesses have no cure, we must focus on prevention beginning in childhood and continuing throughout our lives.

Physical activity is especially important for teens because it enhances mental health and increases resistance to the negative effects of stress from peer pressure, etc. It also improves body image and self-confidence. Some studies have even found a link between regular physical activity and academic performance.

Many adolescents remain quite active throughout their teenage years, but the majority become less active as they approach adulthood. How can you encourage your sedentary teen to become more active? Here are a few helpful hints from parents of teens and from teachers who have spent years working with adolescents.

Model healthful behaviors and attitudes.

Your diet and exercise attitudes and behaviors have been absorbed by your children throughout childhood. If you generally eat well-balanced meals, manage your stress and enjoy regular exercise, your children have a head start. And don’t worry, you don’t have to be perfect. Just do your best for the sake of your own health and that of your children. Someone once said, “Children have never been very good at listening to elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

As much as possible, serve well-balanced meals at home, including plenty of fruits and vegetables. Keep healthful, low-fat snack foods on hand. Encourage teens to be active for the right reasons: health, fitness, stress management and, most of all, fun. This is crucial since teens are often obsessed with weight control and appearance. While wanting to look good may motivate teens to follow healthy lifestyle recommendations, it can also strengthen an obsession with looks. This obsession can lead to preoccupations with eating and exercising that are often difficult to overcome.

Don’t focus on weight loss.

Again, emphasize a healthful lifestyle. Focusing on weight sets your teen up for failure, since weight loss is difficult to achieve. Teens become easily discouraged and may give up quickly when expected results are not instantaneous (and the healthful kind of weight loss, fat loss, never is). When weight loss is the focus, everyone becomes angry and disappointed. Remember, your No. 1 goal is to help your teen and family survive the adolescent years with your loving relationships intact!

Encourage after-school and summer physical activity programs.

Let your teen enroll in after-school and summer camp physical activity programs. Are you aware of what is available in your community? Check into after-school programs, community centers, YMCA’s, sports programs, dance classes and fitness centers. Some parents even start their own groups. Choose activities your teen is most excited about (or least resistant to). Then, sign your teens up with their friends.

Limit sedentary activities.

If your teen spends a lot of time watching television or movies, or playing video and computer games, work out a reasonable compromise.

Harness that adolescent idealism.

Many teens love to put their energy into service activities. Encourage your son or daughter to sign up and train for a walkathon or dance-athon whose donations go to a worthy cause.

Have the energy to parent your teenager.

Parenting a teen can be demanding. Extra stress can upset your own equilibrium, which is more important than ever during this period. Keep an optimistic perspective, and remember that adolescence doesn’t last forever. Get professional help if parenting struggles are getting you down, or your teen is in trouble.

Healthy Lifestyles… Adolescents and the fitness center.

“I was really worried about my daughter Ashley,” your fitness center client tells you. “She’s 14 years old and about 20 pounds overweight, but never takes my advice. Things are better now with your new fitness classes for teens. She and her friends take water aerobics and strength-training classes here three days a week after school. Ashley loves the classes! She has so much more energy these days, and just seems like a happier person. Thank you so much for giving teens a chance to discover exercise!”

Teens in the fitness center

Working parents, single parents, crowded schools. More than ever, teens need places to go and fun things to do. The statistics speak to this problem: Record numbers of teens are inactive and overweight, not to mention bored, depressed and getting into trouble with sex, violence, drugs and crime. Adolescents need opportunities for physical activities that promote health and a healthy self-esteem.

Some fitness centers are teaming up with schools and community organizations to offer teen programming, especially during school and right after school when the facility is underutilized. Many teens love strength training and recreational activities such as racquet sports, swimming and aerobics.

Maybe the fitness industry should learn from the cigarette advertisers: Market to teenagers and create a lifelong habit. Today’s teens will support our industry by becoming fitness center members in the future. Besides, teens can be a rewarding group to work with, and their parents are often tremendously grateful.

Reaching adolescents

The key to successful teen programming is designing activities that appeal to adolescents and finding instructors who respect and understand them. How can you get in touch with adolescent tastes? Begin by getting in touch with your own teenage years. If you try long and hard enough, I’m sure you can remember something about your adolescence. When you work with teens, you’ll find these memories coming back with greater clarity. While times have changed a great deal since some of us were in our teens, we can still remember the sense of emerging identity, the energy, and the concern with fitting in.

While adolescents often appear to be very mature and self-controlled, they differ in many ways from full-fledged adults.

A diverse group. If you are working with teen groups, you may want to survey or meet with them to get their feedback. What kinds of activities would they like? What other things are they already involved in? When are they free? You may also want to survey parents on these points.

Focus on fun, not health. For many adolescents, personal mortality is a hazy or irrelevant concept. Many teens have difficulty even imagining themselves as adults. While some teens might be a little worried about the health consequences of behaviors such as a poor diet or sedentary lifestyle, their concerns about peer pressure often overwhelm their rational decision-making abilities. For many teens, worry about future health consequences is not enough to motivate them to change health behaviors.

Peer pressure. Peer influence can be harmful, as when teens are urged by their peers to drive while intoxicated or to diet themselves to starvation. But peer influence can also encourage participation in beneficial activities such as sports, youth groups, 4-H and so forth. Teens are more likely to attend your programs if their friends are coming as well. Encourage parents to sign their teen up with a friend.

The media. Adolescents are strongly influenced by the media, especially television and magazines. Sometimes media influence can be good. The fitness industry is lucky that being fit is often promoted by the media these days. But the negative effects of too much media exposure are many. Teens compare themselves to famous people and find themselves lacking: not handsome enough, not pretty or thin enough, not sexy enough. Media critic Jean Kilbourne has noted that media images are “persuasive and pervasive.”

Mary Pipher, author of the bestseller Reviving Ophelia, points out that parents and teachers must fight the junk values of popular culture that surround us in the media, especially programming and magazines that target adolescent audiences. It’s a big job. Fitness leaders can at least model well-balanced, healthful lifestyles that focus on subjective involvement and getting into the flow of life, rather than observation and judging oneself as an object.

Physical appearance. Adolescents place a high value on the way they look. This is a corollary of media influence and the culture we live in, which places enormous value on first impressions. Some educators have successfully promoted participation in physical activity by emphasizing how exercise can help you look and feel good. Taking advantage of adolescent focus on appearance can be a double-edged sword, however. While wanting to look good may motivate teens to follow healthy lifestyle recommendations, it can also feed into an obsession with looks. This obsession can lead to preoccupations with eating and exercising that are often difficult to overcome.

Role models. Adolescents can be strongly influenced by role models. They may be media figures such as entertainment and sports personalities, but many teens also look at real people as role models: other teens, teachers, coaches, older friends and even parents. Some teens respect authority, so be sure to emphasize your education and experience when you introduce yourself. They want to see you as an expert.

Stress. Many adolescents feel powerless in the face of overwhelming difficulties. While teens may not worry too much about their individual health, teens as a group are very concerned about the future of their world. North American teens are especially worried about the environment. They are also concerned about many political and social issues, such as crime, poverty and discrimination. They worry about being able to find jobs and support themselves. Physical activity can be a great way for teens (and everyone) to reduce feelings of stress.

Idealists. Adolescents have tremendous energy and drive when inspired. This is why many people love working with teens. Adolescence is a time of idealism. This idealism must be encouraged, or depression and self-absorption may take its place. Can you blame teens for getting depressed? Just read the newspaper!

Many teens love to put their energy into service activities. Maybe your center can link exercise to a worthy cause. Let teens organize and participate in a walkathon or danceathon. These activities improve self-esteem and help combat feelings of powerlessness.

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Holmes, J., & E.L. Silverman. We’re Here, Listen to Us! A Survey of Young Women in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, 1992.

Louis Harris and Associates. In Their Own Words: Adolescent Girls Discuss Health and Health Care Issues. New York: The Commonwealth Fund, 1996.

Pipher, M. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.

Understanding your body’s energy systems.

Athletes Need Attitude And Self-Confidence To Achieve Success In Sport.

How To Measure Heart Rate And Blood Pressure During Exercise.

Fitness benefits for teenagers.

American University Athletic Recruiting.


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