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Parental Guidelines to Promote Physical Activity in Teens

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

The need to consciously make time for exercise is a relatively recent phenomenon. Just less than half a century ago, youth entertained themselves by playing formal and informal games with their bodies, rather than with their hands on video game controls. They walked to places to visit with each other in person, rather than texting a message on a phone. These days teens can easily spend an entire afternoon sitting in front of the video game console, television, or laptop, while their grandparents at the same age would leave their house and go outside to round up some friends for a game of stickball, basketball, or to go roller-skating.

Today, nearly one fourth of youth report playing video games or using the computer for entertainment for three or more hours on an average school day. Another 32.8% of youth report spending three or more hours on an average school day watching television (Carpenter, S. (2001). Sleep deprivation may be undermining teen health (Monitor on Psychology, 32, 9.). Over time, our society's favorite and cheapest forms of entertainment have become more and more sedentary (e.g., TV, web surfing, virtual social networking, video games). As such, it has become more difficult for youth and adults to find healthy, fun, and affordable activities that are more physically active. Furthermore, public schools continue to decrease the number of physical education classes and opportunities, particularly for adolescent students, due to ongoing financial strain coupled with an increasing pressure to raise test scores in core subject areas. Only 33.3% of high school youth report attending a daily physical education class in school (Eaton, Kann, Kinchen, et al., 2010).

These socio-cultural changes place greater pressure on parents to find ways to encourage their youths' healthy participation in regular physical activity that is fun, enjoyable, and affordable. Youth should be spending at least one hour a day, most days of every week, engaged in some form of physical activity. However, only 37% of high school students report getting an hour or more of exercise five or more days a week. Furthermore, 23.1% of high school youth report not getting at least an hour of exercise on any day in a week.

The best way parents can encourage their teens' participation in regular physical activity is by modeling this behavior themselves. Teens should observe their parents regularly exercising and choosing physical activities as pastimes. Teens can learn how to incorporate exercise into their daily schedule if they watch their parents balance work, chores, and family and social time, with exercise. Parents can also encourage exercise through planning family activities that include exercise. For example, families can develop the tradition of walking together after supper; playing the new sport, Frisbee golf, in the local park on Sunday afternoons; having a dance party in the basement on a snowy night; or canoeing down a river on their summer vacation. The important lesson here is for youth to experience physical activity as something that is enjoyable, in the same way that video games and television are enjoyable.

Parents can also help their children by assisting them to find physical activities that match their children's interests and talents. If a youth really enjoys watching basketball on television and loves to run and to throw, the parents may want to get their child involved in a basketball camp, clinic, or team. If a child loves to dance around and loves being the center of attention, such as putting on "shows" for family and friends, parents may want to look into dance or gymnastics classes. While some children are clearly interested in a particular sport or activity, others do not seem to express such an interest. These youth will need to be encouraged to try different activities until they find something that suits their interests, skills, and abilities.

Parents should avoid pressuring their children to participate in a sport or activity just because the parents enjoy that particular sport or activity, or because they have fond memories of their own youth engaged in that activity. If a child has absolutely no interest in tennis, and his parents try to force him into playing tennis because they love tennis, the child will likely grow to resent the game. Children may have a special potential in other activities that are different from the ones their parents enjoy. They may miss their opportunity to shine if they're pressured into participating in a sport they do not like just because their parents enjoy this particular sport.

Some youth can be motivated to participate in a sport or physical activity if it enables them to improve in some area where they feel weak, awkward, or self-conscious. For instance a girl may be motivated to take dance classes if she feels clumsy and uncoordinated and believes dance classes will help her to become more graceful and coordinated; or a boy may enjoy Taekwondo if feels insecure about his physical prowess. When youth are interested and invested in physical activities they enjoy, they are more likely to spend more time engaging in these healthy activities, while learning a skill or sport that they may continue to enjoy into adulthood.

Sometimes youth express an interest in a sport or activity that is too expensive and beyond the financial resources of their family (e.g., equipment, club fees, entry fees, etc.). However, this alone should not be a deterrent. Many youth sport organizations, clubs, camps, and teams are committed to making their activities accessible to everyone regardless of income. Parents should inquire if there are any provisions for lower-income families. Even when formal provisions are not provided, creative financial arrangements can often be negotiated. For example, Keisha may be able to take Taekwondo lessons in exchange for volunteering her time to assist at the matches such as setting up, cleaning up, collecting tickets, or running the refreshment stand.