Teenagers can become physically fit through moderate exercise. Walking and doing chores such as dusting and vacuuming can provide this type of exercise. Some aerobic exercise is also beneficial. Exercise can improve self-esteem, improve alertness, and reduce stress.
Are you getting any real exercise? If not, you may be in what fitness guru Dr. Kenneth Cooper calls “the adolescent slump.” After the go-go years of childhood (remember when your day just naturally included running, jumping, wrestling, and dancing around like a nut?), studies show that many teens develop a more sit-down lifestyle. They ride in cars instead of walking. They sit and laugh at the “little kids” who still play group games out in the neighborhood. And instead of playing volleyball, football, or basketball, most teens sit on the sidelines and cheer the 1 0 percent to 15 percent of their peers who do compete in sports.
So, where did all those jumping, running little kids take a wrong turn? Cooper and other “kid fitness” experts say it isn’t their fault–that adults focus too much on team sports and competitions and too little on keeping middle school and high school students involved in the kind of noncompetitive activities that can lead to a lifetime of fitness. in short, they say, we don’t spend enough time and effort on the millions of teens who aren’t “on the team.” (Even basic P.E. requirements are being reduced or eliminated in many high schools.
The result? Too many active, fit children turn into less active teenagers who enter adulthood with what one expert calls a “declining fitness profile.”
OK, so that’s the bad news. And why are we telling you all this?
Because you can do something about it.
You can break the pattern. You can be more active, more “fit” as a teenager than you were as a child.
And you can head into adult life with a “fitness profile” that’s on the way up, not down.
It’s Your Move
* 84 percent of children under age 10 are involved in physical activity with some community organization–but only 32 percent of high school seniors in another survey say they play sports or exercise three or more times a week.
Pull Up, Push Up … and Listen Up!
Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it all before. Exercise is “good for you.” But do you really know why? We’ve got a little list….
* Exercise Can Improve Your Athletic Performance. A well-exercised body is more flexible, and the joints can move easily through a wider “range of motion.” Combine a specific sport with a good general exercise regimen, and you’ll find you have quicker reflexes, more stamina, and all the “moves” you need to play well.
* Exercise Can Reduce the Odds of a Sports Injury. in his Sportswise guide for young athletes, teen sports physician Lyle Micheli writes that “strengthening muscles enables us to resist sprains and strains … [and] to withstand the normal trauma of contact and collision sports such as football, soccer, basketball, and hockey.” If you spend most of the week as a couch potato, don’t rely on practices and games alone to make you fit, says Dr. Micheli. Make time for physical activity and exercise “outside” your special sport.
* Exercise Can Give You a Bigger, Better Heart. Did you know that the heart of a child or adult who exercises regularly can actually get bigger? An “exercised” heart (and we mean aerobic exercise that raises the heartbeat for 20 to 30 minutes) actually may beat a little slower when it’s “at rest,” but pumps more blood with each beat than a “lazy” heart does. At the same time, exercise can give your heart the ability to respond to high-stress situations without trouble. And exercise also increases the levels of “good” HDL cholesterol in your blood–the “Roto-Rooter” substance that helps keep your arteries clear and open.
* Exercise Improves Mental Alertness–and May Even Help Your Grades! Studies of Canadian and French school children over a period of years showed that students who exercised every day performed better in many of their academic subjects than their peers who had only one exercise session per week.
* Exercising “Now” Can Mean a Healthier “Later.” Being fit in childhood and adolescence helps people fight off a host of diseases in later life, including heart disease, back pain, osteoporosis (brittle bones), diabetes, and high blood pressure. Regular moderate exercise helps the immune system ward off minor infectious diseases (colds, for instance). And in several recent studies, physically active adults (those who exercised regularly) were found to have lower death rates from several kinds of cancer.
* Exercise Is an Effective Way to Reduce Stress, Control Depression, and Get a Better Night’s Sleep. If you’re feeling down or angry, exercise can help change your mood. “I have never started a walk angry and ended up with the same feeling that I had when I began,” says Casey Meyers in his book Walking. “You can literally walk your anger into the ground.”
* Exercise Can Boost Self-Esteem. When you feel and look better, you feel better about yourself. You don’t have to be the star of a sports team to think of yourself as a success, either. You can compete against yourself by setting exercise goals and sticking with the activities you choose: calisthenics, jogging, walking, cycling, swimming, etc.
* Exercise Can Add Fun and Friendship to Your Life. Fun and friendship? Those may not be the first words you think of to pair with exercise.” But if you work it right, you can have fun–and get to know friends and family better. Take an exercise class with a friend. Start walking three times a week with your dog. Organize a group to enter a local 10K race–even if you aren’t runners, most races will let you “fastwalk” the course together. Exercising with people you care about–minus TV sets, video games, and other distractions–can enrich the “personal” side of your life.
DON’T “Go for the Bum”
SHE kicks, twirls, and jumps for two hours a day in an aerobic dancing class.
HE walks 15 minutes to the supermarket instead of taking the car.
HE and a friend often spend weekends running in marathon races–and they train long hours during the week, too.
SHE gave up jogging last year (shin splints) and now “does the mile” in a swimming pool three times a week.
Which of these people are in tune with the latest thinking about exercise? If you guessed the hard-driving dancers and marathoners, you’re out of step.
These days, the gurus of exercise are talking “moderation.” Take it easier, they say. Don’t go for the burn. Don’t see pain as gain. Push yourself–but not too hard.
Fitness expert Dr. Kenneth Cooper and other fitness boosters want to get the word out that you DO NOT need to become a jock or a fitness fanatic to get the benefits of exercise. “Moderate exercise,” says Dr. Cooper, “something as simple as walking 30 to 45 minutes a day at a brisk pace, will produce the moderate fitness level that is associated with greatly reduced risk of death.”
Who gets the most from a good exercise program? Couch potatoes! “The greatest benefits achieved,” says a government study, “when the least active individuals [i.e., potatoes] become moderately active.” A long-term study of nearly 17,000 Harvard graduates found that health benefits–including a 20 percent the death rate!–began for who burned as few as 500 a week in exercise.
Walking 15 minutes a day or playing tennis for one hour each week will burn 500 calories. The studies say that active people should stay active–but that they don’t really improve health or lower the risk of death by becoming “extremely active.” What’s more, people who overdo exercise face a skyrockgting risk of injuries to muscles, joints, and other overused body parts.
Another 1993 report added that we should pay attention to the benefits of “real life” physical activity, too. (Your parents will LOVE this!) Dusting and vacuuming, raking leaves, washing windows, or cutting the grass is good exercise, too. We all still need a few short sessions each week (15 to 30 minutes each) of the kind of aerobic exercise that makes your heart beat fast. But in between, you can work on strength, stamina, and flexibility through exercise, sports, and other physical activities that get your body moving and working at a steady pace.
What activities? The choices are almost endless…and they’re up to you! Take a look at the list of sports and activities on page 11. Put checkmarks beside things you already do at least once a week. Circle activities you’d like to try. Be adventurous, but realistic: Some sports you may have to put off for later (surfing if you live far from the ocean, skiing if it’s too expensive, etc.). Focus on things you can actually do in your own area right now.
Fitness benefits from exercise can begin for people who burn at least 500 calories per week in deliberate exercise or activity. Draw up a list of activities you could do this week to use up 500 calories. (Use the per-minute calorie count on the chart that is closer to your body weight.) Then make a list of fitness activities you’d like to add on in later weeks. Visualize yourself now, and then “see” yourself after six months following this program. How do you feel? Bouncy, more energetic, better-looking? What things will you be able to do then that you can’t do now? Exercise is one way you can plan to make your life better: healthier and more fun.
Fifteen to 20 minutes of exercise is as relaxing as taking a tranquilizer, say recent studies. Why? Researchers think exercise releases increased levels of natural pain killers and “mood elevators” called endorphins into the bloodstream–creating a natural feeling of well-being and calm.
Eeny, Meeny: More Than One … Is Even Better!
By now you’ve got the idea: The world’s best exercise is the one you DO! Your goal should be to get some kind of “formal” exercise three or four times a week, and to find ways to put more “informal” activity into your life. Here’s how one high school girl’s exercise choices shape up:
- Monday: exercise video (low-impact, 20 minutes plus warm-up/cool-down time).
- Tuesday: soccer practice, including laps around the field.
- Wednesday: treadmill in fitness center with Mom.
- Thursday: soccer practice.
- Friday: nothing much–but raked leaves and biked to a friend’s house.
- Saturday: the game. We lost, but played hard.
- Sunday: hiked around the lake with friends.
This girl is an athlete in training–and does more exercise than you’d need to bring yourself up to a “moderate” fitness level.
But fitness experts say this kind of varied routine is a good way to avoid boredom–and to reduce the chances of overuse injuries from working out “the same way” every time. But even if you change exercises from day to day, remember that building fitness means regular exercise sessions–three or four times a week, year-round. Why? Because your body tends to build fitness slowly, and lose it rapidly. Take one week off, for instance, and your cardiorespiratory (heart-lung) fitness will drop by 10 percent.
The best exercise “mix” often includes three somewhat different components:
- A regular set of conditioning exercises for strength and flexibility (what your grandparents might call “calisthenics“
- Fun sports/activities that provide an aerobic workout: cycling, swimming, walking, tennis, rowing, dancing, and so on. (Focus on activities that make you breathe fast and keep your major muscles constantly moving and working–a sure sign that you’re getting the aerobic exercise your heart and lungs need.) With a little creative thinking, you can turn some of these workouts into social occasion–for instance, turning an exercise hike and swim into a social swim and picnic by inviting a few friends along.
- More physical activity in your everyday life: tackling some of the harder aerobic housework (lawn mowing, leaf raking, window washing, etc.) … climbing the stairs even when there’s an elevator … parking “way out” at the mall … talking with friends while playing tennis or biking around the neighborhood, not just on the phone. Don’t know where to start? If you’ve been leading a fairly inactive life, start slow. Ask a friend or a favorite relative to go walking with you. Send for one of the exercise booklets listed below. Try out other activities as you go along–and don’t feel guilty about dropping something that doesn’t appeal to you: There are always other options. Just be sure to choose something, and (in the words of the ad) Just Do It. You know what exercise can do for you.
You know it won’t take much time out of your week to become an ex-couch potato. You know you’ll feel better about yourself and your life.
So … make your move today!