The fact is, researchers are finding that except for the 10 to 15 percent of teenagers who compete in sports, teenagers tend to be less active every year. But that’s a pattern you can break … and with less time and effort than you might imagine.
“Teens have to work harder at finding activities they enjoy,” says Dr. Mary Lou Meredith of the Cooper Center for Aerobics Research in Dallas. But what many teenagers don’t know, she adds, is that you can get the health benefits and the “good looks” benefits of exercise just “by doing some activity for 30 to 50 minutes almost every day–and you can get that in short sessions of 10 or 15 minutes of moderately intense activity. It doesn’t have to be strenuous.”
In other words, you can feel better and look great without making a major dent in your daily schedule. Dr. Meredith offers
- Begin very gradually. If you want to run, start with a walking program and work up to it.
- Don’t do anything so intensely that it causes pain at the time or the next day. “If you’re hurting the next day, you won’t exercise … and then you’re more likely to give it up.”
- Find several activities you enjoy and cross-train. By varying activities, you reduce the danger of overuse injury, and there’s less load on your joints. And variety is more fun, too.
Dr. Meredith says teens get lifelong health benefits from fitness–including lower risks for diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. (These diseases are called hypokinetic, which means they are illnesses that come from “too little motion.”)
What’s more, she adds, teenage girls can use exercise to greatly reduce their chance of developing the brittle bones that affect many older women’s lives. “Activity for girls through the teen years is very important because it helps them reach a high peak bone mass,” says Dr. Meredith. “As everyone begins to age, bone mass starts to deteriorate–and the more mass you have to start with, the better off you are.”
Getting fit and staying fit through exercise can mean you look and feel better now–and will probably have a healthier life. Exercise can improve mental alertness, reduce stress and depression, make weight control easier, and boost your self-esteem. Various studies show that girls involved in sports or steady fitness activities see themselves as strong and in control of their lives–and are less at risk of becoming teenage mothers, school dropouts, or drug users.
Exercise can add fun and friendship to your life. Here’s how to make your fitness regimen feel more like play than work:
- Enter local races or “walks” with a group of friends … or take an exercise class together.
- Turn “hanging old” with friends into “moving” with friends. You can talk all you want while you bike, walk, play tennis, or hike around the lake together.
- Do your chores at home to some music you like–and push up the pace! Studies show moderately intense work around the house (mopping, mowing the lawn) can be an effective short workout session.
Again, building fitness means making the same kind of day-in, day-out commitment our Olympic athletes make. But the latest studies show that fitness benefits begin for all of us “nonjocks” if we can burn at least 500 calories every week in deliberate exercise or activity. That might mean three half-hour sessions of roller-blading or “rock’n’ roll” dancing every week … two brisk half-hours swimming laps in the pool…two 45-minute tennis games … or a fairly slow-paced 30-minute walk every day.
The mix of activities is up to you. But it all has to start with a choice you make … to give yourself a healthier life–and have some fun in the bargain!
Mel Stewart won two gold medals in the 1992 Summer Games at Barcelona. “I’d tell anybody”: If it’s a challenge, race toward it, don’t shy away. You can’t have any other attitude toward life.” It’s a philosophy he’s been following since he was a small boy whose parents told him he wouldn’t go to college unless he got a scholarship.