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Exercise for teens

My name is Dr Susan Baxter (PhD). I am a fitness and nutrition educator for personal trainers and allied health professionals.

I wanted to provide some insight exercise for teens.

I take away nothing but respect for paediatricians or GPs, but one aspect of my PhD research involved exercise for people with chronic illness and a theme was that patients believed that GPs and rheumatologists should have the ability and expertise to advise on exercise prescription. The problem is that GPs and medical doctors are expected to know about exercise however that does not form part of their training.

Some of my clients are medical professionals and cardiologists themselves, and they agree that it is an area that is confusing as all exercise DVDs say to “consult a doctor before commencing an exercise regime”. However doctors aren’t trained in exercise prescription.

Exercise isn't dangerous for kids and teens, and in fact working out should be encouraged as part of habit formation prior to the child moving out of their home for university for example, as the patterns you establish when you are in your teens are formative for your adult life.

One of the best way you can encourage teens is by role modeling the correct amount of times to exercise and talking about exercise in a way that excludes exercise from being linked to weight loss or body image. Furthermore considering inclusive and "beginner mindset" language so that your teen feels encouraged and that they learn patience for a new skill.

The skills they get from exercising are not just physical but also mental. Exercise increases ability to handle stress, reduces mood swings, increases oxygen to the brain, and helps with logical reasoning, spacial awareness and problem solving for tasks and memory outside of the exercise session.

When teens have hormone fluctuations they become more clumsy and tend to fall over things or injure themselves. When exercising, you improve balance and proprioception (your ability to know where your body is in space). So you might find that your teen therefore is less clumsy as a result which certainly helps with confidence.

When doing exercise, learning the skills required of the exercise develops the brain more. The area responsible for this is the cerebellum. On top of that learning to delay gratification (by the process of skills acquisition through practice) helps to work on discipline and this is something that in the development of the brain (pre frontal cortex) that teenagers lack when they are in friend groups which leads to more risk taking behaviour. Teaching this self discipline and improvement of executive function through exercise can keep your teen safe outside of exercise, and improve concentration in the classroom.

Furthermore exercise releases endorphins and dopamine. This is the happy hormone that teens crave (which is why they are glued to their phones and usually love sugary snacks). During teenage years there is enhanced dopamine release and this results in teens undertaking usually risky behaviours. Imagine if you could reduce the chances of these behaviours simply by exercise?

As with any item in life; exercise is not just "the more the better" and this is the same principle for adults. Exercise has a "sweet spot" and after that adding more exercise doesn't increase the benefits.

Teens without proper instruction and guidance can overtrain. (This I like to refer to as under recovery). It's hard to pinpoint how much exercise is too much as it depends on: type; intensity, duration, frequency, energy availability from food and sleep quality, as well as prior training experience. So those who are "fitter" can handle more exercise than those who are less fit before overtraining occurs. In more trained individuals it's about 45mins -1 hour of exercise for 6 days a week, at a moderate to high intensity. Every 4-6 weeks teens with this load of training should take a deload week where they reduce training amount by 60%. If the intensity is lower or it's an untrained individual who is not working out with as much intensity; then the deload week may not be necessary.

If your teen has been avoiding exercise for a while; start slow and encourage 30mins of exercise 3 times a week for 6 weeks before either increasing the session to 45mins or adding more days. As I've mentioned though; it's not just about duration it's about intensity so keep the level to a 6-7 out of 10 effort before increasing.

The risks of overtraining is suppression of hormones and development; moodiness and lethargy. In females it can cause "FAT" which is female athlete triad syndrome, and it can be hard to pinpoint when a teen may not be regularly menstruating to work out if the period is just irregular or whether it's effected by training load.

Many teens are most at risk of inadequate nutrition for the amount of exercise they are doing, so that and an assessment of how much sleep your teen is actually getting is important.

Teens need the sleep and the correct nutrition to be able to develop; grow and have good hormone health. Exercise uses energy so there still needs to be enough energy to be able to grow and develop once the energy for exercise has been used.

One thing I should point out is that it has now been shown that teens can and should be encouraged to workout with weights and that it is not dangerous (provided there is correct technique). As a precaution I do not prescribe exercises that involve "axial loading" such as a barbell squat, since the teen spine is still very malleable.

If you are unsure yourself about exercise techniques and prescription as a parent; enlist a personal trainer or join your teen into a group exercise class (there are a few good ones available relatively cheaply online). These skills will set your teen up a long way and can provide friends outside of school for better mental health benefits for the teen and better emotional support when (as all teens experience) some kind of falling out with their friends.

If you are in need of some exercise advise for your teen, or you are a personal trainer who would like exercise advise and to learn how to train teens effectively, reach out.

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