Exercise for Teenagers: A Complete Guide
“Exercising improves both mental and physical health, and it is easy to stay sedentary in today’s world. Conveniences such as remote work and school, food delivery services, and screen-time pastimes can dramatically reduce the time we spend on our feet, leading to far less actual movement or exertion.”
Staying healthy is more important than ever, and getting up and moving is a must for that. Developing healthy habits in the teen years can lead to better health and satisfaction in the short term, while setting up habits that can last into adulthood.
According to the CDC, children aged 6 through 17 need about an hour of moderate to high intensity exercise daily (
Youth who exercise also tend to experience a lower incidence of depression (2). Exercise can take the form of sports play, aerobic exercise such as walking or roller skating, or strength training.
Still, only 25% of American teens reach this recommendation (
It is easy to see that the closer you are to the hour per day recommendation, the better your results will be. It is possible to take this attitude too far.
There is a lot of a good thing. Getting too much exercise can have its own issues.
Some people are naturally more active than others, but too much training can lead to injury, reduced immunity, sleeplessness, and depression. Additionally, a hyper-focus on the body can lead to disordered eating and a compulsion to burn excessive calories.
There are signs that your child might be getting too much exercise.
- There is anxiety surrounding workouts.
- Fear about not working out or not working out at all.
- Body changes in a short time.
- “Isolation from old friends and reluctance to participate in hobbies that are no longer relevant to working out are two of the reasons why people don’t participate in hobbies that are no longer relevant to working out.”
- The menstrual period is lost.
- There is a restriction on the amount of eating that can be done.
- There are frequent injuries.
If these behaviors become a main pattern, it is a cause for concern.
The influence of a parent is underestimated. A good example can influence a child to make healthy choices, but bad habits can lead to less healthy choices.
Model good behaviors by being physically active yourself, but also provide emotional support for your child and words of encouragement. Research has found that mental health and social-emotional support from parents promotes a healthy love for movement, especially in girls (
A good exercise program for anyone includes strength, mobility and cardio. This is true for teens as well.
Many people wonder if it’s safe for teens to lift weights. In general, the answer is yes, so long as they are working with a weight that is not too heavy. In general, the goal for strength training in the teen years should be to focus on form, using lower weights and higher reps, rather than trying to lift the heaviest weight possible (5).
If sports are a large part of a teenager’s life, agility training may also be included as a part of an ideal program. This type of training enhances quickness and reaction time and includes exercises that train balance and power, and even offer a cognitive challenge (
While a large portion of a teen’s exercise program should be fairly high energy, there is also abundant evidence that mind-body exercises such as yoga can reduce anxiety and improve mental health in both healthy kids and those facing mental health challenges (
- Moderation is key. Overtraining in youth sports has become more common as kids start specializing in one sport at younger ages. This early specificity and hyper-focus on sport performance can lead to burnout and injury. The teen years are best used for variety, experimentation, and moderation, pursuing the goal of entering adulthood with well-rounded athleticism and finding joy in movement (8).
- Consider their size and ability. Some teens are able to use adult size equipment at the gym, but smaller teens may need modifications. For instance, a small-framed teen entering a group cycling class may need to be sized for the bike before class to avoid discomfort and potential injury. Similarly, a shorter-limbed person will want to know how to set up the selectorized weight machines in order to not place undue stress on the joints.
- Emphasize effort, not performance. Developing skills, coordination, and sportsmanship can have a lasting impact on a young athlete’s life, whereas emphasizing wins or competition can cause anxiety and a likelihood of quitting (
- Don’t focus on their body. Body image issues develop more easily in both male and female athletes when emphasis is put on the physical appearance of the athlete (
10). Emphasize strength and athleticism over aesthetics.
- Focus on fun! Framing exercise as an unpleasant chore to get through is not the path to a lifetime of healthy movement. There are a lot of ways to exercise, so not only is it possible to find something you enjoy doing, but it might be something you didn’t expect. For instance, jumping rope is a terrific high-intensity cardio exercise that many adults love to hate, but many kids jump rope voluntarily and love every minute. Finding some form of movement that is enjoyable can lead to a lifelong love of movement that will enhance health beyond measure.
A careful approach is required for overweight teens. It is more useful to treat exercise as punishment than to go on a crash diet. It will be a failure.
Here are some ways to help your teen.
- Combine exercise with healthy eating. Exercise is great for burning calories and is extremely important in maintenance of weight lost, but it plays a smaller role than diet in losing weight (
11). Exercise for the metabolic boost and to create a healthy habit to keep off weight that has been lost, but don’t rely on punitive exercise for the change.
- Parental support and involvement. Supporting your teen includes eating healthy with them and modeling desired behaviors. Words of affirmation are also key — not complimenting the weight loss or attractiveness of your child, but praising the efforts to improve their health. The willingness to take your child to workouts or sports plays a role, as does encouraging healthy habits such as eating mindfully, rather than in front of the television (
- Patience is required. Successful weight loss, especially long-term weight loss, requires time and patience. Remember to focus on the wholeness of the child and not make losing weight the cornerstone of your relationship.
- Focus on health, not appearance. Putting the focus on looking good or fitting into clothes is a pipeline to disordered eating and body image issues (
- Make it fun. Rather than making exercise a regimented program, insert family excursions like hikes or park days into the family’s schedule. Loving movement is something we can do our whole lives, and creating that emotional connection between movement, family, togetherness, and fun is something that can have lifelong benefits.
Finding something that your teen loves to do will help them keep up with their exercise and have a healthy relationship with it. It is a good idea to eliminate the things that are in your life.
It takes only figuring out how you love to move, rather than thinking about how you should move, to commit to exercise.
Here are a few questions to ask to help your teen find movement that they love.
- Do you love to be inside our outside? If your teen is outdoorsy, try volleyball, tennis, or hiking — if you trap them inside, they will not thrive. Conversely, if they love the regimented feel of a really good circuit training class or the clang of the weight room, they may flounder outside.
- Are you a social exerciser? The same exercise experienced in different ways can make a difference. If your teen is motivated by exercising in a group, ride a bike in a room with great music and 20 people! If your teen is more of a loner, take the bike out on the road! Same great exercise, two very different experiences. Encourage them to find their social (or antisocial) bliss for a more rewarding experience.
- Can you multitask? If homework requires listening to a video or audiobook, perhaps they can pop in some headphones and walk while getting their work done. Or maybe they’re looking for something fun to do on a Friday night and decide to trade in the movies for a night at the roller rink.
- Can you make it a game? Teenagers are just bigger kids, and the power of play is still applicable at any age. Can they make a game out of exercising? Play tag with younger siblings in the yard? Challenge their friends to a field day? Race on stand up paddleboards? Making movement fun is key for everyone.
Encourage them to try new things once they have found what they like. If you want them to find a love for movement that will last a lifetime, help them follow their joy and stay open to new experiences.
“It doesn’t take a lot of effort to get fit. A few home exercises can boost your fitness level and make you feel better about yourself.”
Six simple movements can get you started.
Lunges will strengthen your legs, hips, and core while raising your heart rate and challenging your balance.
- From an upright position, step forward with one leg, bending both knees as you bring the back knee toward the floor. Keep your chest and shoulders high.
- Push back on the front leg to get back to the starting position.
- You should alternate your lead leg 20 times.
Pushups strengthen the arms, shoulders, and core muscles.
- Start in a plank position, facing the floor with your hands, or a bit wider. You can either sit on the floor or bend your knees for more challenge.
- Lowering your chest as you bend and twist your arms will keep your body in a straight line.
- Do 10–15 times.
The squat is a great way to strengthen the legs, hips, and core and can be modified to include more weight by holding a dumbbell or a kettlebell.
- Stand with your legs together. If you were going to sit in a chair, you should keep your chest high, bend at the hips and reach for your butt.
- Push into the floor as you get up.
The bird dog strengthens shoulders, hips, back, and abdominals.
- Start in a position that is quadruped. To make a long line, you have to extend one arm and the other leg, and use one hand to hold the other leg. The movement should start from the shoulders and glutes.
- Keep your core engaged to maintain stable posture. Then, lower your arm and leg back to the starting position. Alternate sides 20 times.
The muscles of the hips, abdominals, and thighs are strengthened with this exercise.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent. Your feet should be close together. It is possible to hold a ball or yoga block between your knees to keep your thighs engaged.
- Push into your feet and contract your muscles to make a diagonal line from your knees to your shoulders. To keep from arching your back, tuck your pelvis.
- Keep your belly tight as you lower your hips. For a total of 20 repeats.
The dead bug strengthens and stabilizes your abdominals, shoulders, and hips.
- Lie on your back, tighten your stomach, and then reach for the ceiling. Your legs should be bent 90 and your arms straight up.
- The knee should be moved away from you by moving the foot away from the floor. Lower until your hand and foot are almost touching the ground, or as low as you can without arching your back.
- Return to the starting position and then alternate sides for 20 more reps.
It is easier than ever to not move nowadays and this can be especially true for teens. The benefits of healthy movement have not changed. Finding ways to incorporate enjoyable movement in our lives can have health benefits to enhance the quality of life, as well as the mental and physical health of our teens for years to come.