Benefits of Keeping Active
A growing amount of evidence suggests there are considerably more benefits to physical activity than just weight control or flexibility for tweens and teens.
The recently released results of a long-term survey found that tweens and teenagers who make a habit out of exercise and physical activity are more likely to adapt positive habits such as wearing a seat belt while driving or riding in an automobile, while avoiding negative behaviors such as eating excessive amounts of junk food or using illegal substances.
In the survey that spanned nearly a decade and concluded in 2005, Melissa C. Nelson, Ph.D., registered dietician, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minn., and Penny Gordon-Larsen, Ph.D., Department of Nutrition, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N.C., asked nearly 12,000 middle and high school students to report how often they had participated in various activities in the previous week, including playing sports, using local recreation centers, skating or skateboarding, bicycling, watching television and playing video games. The students also provided information about their grades, self-esteem, sleep patterns and other behaviors.
"Participation in a range of physical-activity-related behaviors, particularly those characterized by high parental sports and/or exercise involvement, was associated with favorable adolescent risk profiles," concludes Nelson in the study. Conversely, adolescents who spent a significant amount of time watching television or playing video games were less likely to have positive risk behavior outcomes. "Enhancing opportunities for physical activity and sports may have a beneficial effect on leading adolescent risk behaviors," the researchers note.
Weighing in on the Results
There are definite benefits to regular exercise that can't be measured on a scale, and those benefits compound when children and parents are active together. "As if increased flexibility, endurance, strength and improved health aren't enough reasons to keep your family healthy, we're realizing the notable emotional and academic benefits as well," says Dr. Michael Forester, a pediatrician in Clay, N.Y. Compared to adolescents whose primary activities were watching television and playing video games, the children surveyed who exercised five or more times per week were less likely to have sex, including unprotected sex, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or drive under the influence of alcohol, or use illegal drugs other than marijuana. When parents, guardians or mentors were added to the equation, the chances of risky behavior dipped even lower.
"This tells us that children who stay active feel better about themselves, have more confidence in their appearance and abilities and value themselves more," says Richard Lieberman, school psychologist and coordinator of the Los Angeles Unified School District Suicide Prevention Unit in Los Angeles, Calif.
Dealing with hundreds of children who engage in several forms of risky behavior including self-mutilation, sexual acts and attempted suicide, Lieberman sees the noticeable results of keeping teens and tweens active. "These children are less likely to miss time away from school or to have low self-esteem," he says. They are also more likely to achieve higher grades in math and science, get a good night's sleep, perform routine household chores and to willingly seek out summer or holiday employment outside the home.
Getting Them Going
Physical activity comes in many forms. From playing soccer on an organized team to mowing the lawn or skateboarding, there are numerous ways for children to pursue activity. Turning off the television, iPod and MP3 players, mobile communication devices and video games is the best place to begin. Encouraging your child to join you on a 30-minute walk with the family dog or through your neighborhood shows you're committed to keeping everyone's blood pumping.
Although most noteworthy results of Nelson and Larsen's survey were associated with children who engaged in moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day, five times a week, health experts urge parents to incorporate any type of physical activity in their adolescent's life. "Anything to get your children moving is beneficial," says Forester.
Suggest you and your shy or less athletically inclined child take tennis, golf or swim lessons together. Guide an outgoing child who needs motivation toward practicing jump shots in the driveway or routinely roller-blading with a friend. Agreeing to make time for family bike rides, trips to the health club or on the treadmill help your child stay active regardless of weather, schedule or household obligations. Lifting free weights together in the basement, playing catch or watching your kids skateboard in the driveway gives them the chance to enjoy being active.
"Making exercise fun can be a great tool," says personal trainer and fitness consultant Sincere Hogan of Houston, Texas. Give your children a goal to work toward. Taking a walk every day during the week can earn a tween a sleep-over or a teen use of the car. Ask your child for suggestions to incorporate more physical activity in your family's lives. "Children often have terrific ideas to combine exercise with fun," says Hogan. You'll give your child the chance to contribute his opinions on exercising and create an empowering environment for your child to keep his mind, body and spirit active, healthy and strong.