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Healthy Teens: Exercise and Sports

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

Regular physical exercise is an extremely important part of a healthy lifestyle for people of all ages. For this reason, it is important for adolescents to develop habits that incorporate regular physical activity into their daily lives so that these habits are carried into adulthood. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for youth to get sufficient exercise due to the increased popularity of sedentary entertainment (television, video games, etc.) and a decrease in physical education opportunities at school. Even socializing has become more sedentary with mobile phones, computers, and virtual social networking. However, there are ways that youth and families can incorporate regular exercise into daily life while having fun together.

teens playing baseballThe benefits of exercise are many. Exercise increases muscle and bone strength, which can reduce the risk of injury and can make a person feel more attractive. Exercise also reduces the risk of obesity because exercise burns off calories consumed. Exercise also increases a person's metabolism, so that even while sedentary an active person will burn more calories than an inactive person would. Regular exercise can also reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In fact, exercise can increase people's HDL or "good" cholesterol levels, and higher HDL cholesterol levels can reduce risk for plaque to form in the arteries and veins and reduces the risk of heart disease. Physical activity also helps cancel out the negative effects of stress on the body. Exercise is a healthy way for people to cope with their frustrations and worries, and it naturally causes the brain to release "feel-good" chemicals into the blood stream. Therefore, regular exercise not only promotes physical health, but psychological health as well.

However, some types of physical activities can become dangerous when safety equipment is not properly utilized, or when certain movements are performed incorrectly. Thus, although competitive athletics provide the benefits of regular exercise, parents will need to work closely with the youths' coaches and doctors to ensure their young athletes are taking appropriate precautions to prevent, or at least minimize, the potential for sports-related injuries.

Types of Physical Activity for Adolescents

Many people think of exercise as something that requires special equipment and special skills. However, any physical activity that requires the body to move enables youth to reap the health benefits of exercise. In early and middle adolescence, youth can receive these health benefits through both formal and informal types of physical activity. Many youth enjoy playing organized, competitive sports such as basketball, cheerleading, baseball, gymnastics, football, golf, tennis, soccer, lacrosse, track and field, etc. These sports may be offered through their school, or through local community recreation centers and private clubs. Organized sports teams typically have regular practices that include aerobic activities like running and jumping to build cardiovascular strength and endurance. Each type of organized sport will emphasize different aspects of physical health: some concentrate on building muscular strength, such as weight lifting; others focus on coordination, such as swinging baseball bats, golf clubs, and tennis rackets; some will require cardiovascular endurance such as track and field events, while others increase flexibility, such as gymnastics. Youth may also enjoy more creative and expressive athletic pursuits such dance, or figure skating. These activities also require regular practice and build youths' strength and stamina.

While many youth enjoy participating in formal sports and athletic activities, other youth may not have the skills or interests to participate in these sorts of activities. However, these youth can still receive the benefits of exercise by participating in regular physical activity through informal and unstructured activities. The key is to ensure regular participation in any enjoyable physical activity nearly every day. This might include gardening, shooting hoops in the driveway, dancing in their bedroom with their friends, riding bicycles around the neighborhood, skateboarding at the skate park, walking the dog after dinner, hiking on a trail in the woods, sledding, or even swinging from the money bars with their younger siblings. The possibilities are endless; the key is simply to move.

As youth approach late adolescence and early adulthood it can become more difficult to find time and opportunities to exercise, as school and work demands increase and social activities change. After youth complete high school it becomes more difficult to participate in formal team sports simply because they are no longer attending the school where these sports were offered. Even if youth go on to college, they may be unable to compete in formal team sports at this advanced level of competition. Parents may need to help their youth locate other opportunities for exercise at their university, college, local recreation center, or YMCA. In addition, many communities and colleges have less competitive, informal or intramural sports leagues.

Another difficulty for older adolescents is that advanced education or full-time employment will often require youth remain sedentary many hours a day. Like adults, these youth will have to make a conscious effort to create time and opportunities for exercise. They will have to think harder about how to incorporate activity into their leisure time alone, and with friends. These youth will have an easier time making this adjustment if they observed their own parents incorporating daily activity into their busy lives. When youth are struggling to find enough time for physical activity along with all the other demands on their time, parents can help them to recognize that even small changes can make a big difference. For instance, these older adolescents might consider leaving 15 minutes earlier so they can walk to class, getting off the subway one stop sooner so they can walk the last 15 minutes, or using a bicycle to complete short errands to the bank or post office.