Helping your teenage kids get off the couch


With Canadian childhood obesity rates tripling over the last 30 years, and Canada’s youth suicide rate being the third highest in the industrialized world, there’s clearly something amiss with our kids’ health, and we know that the repercussions will echo well into their adulthood.

It’s that much worse for teenage girls, who are disproportionately affected by mental health issues. Among kids aged 12-19, 5% of boys and 12% of girls have reported suffering from severe depression. In addition to the mental health triggers that all teens face, girls reaching their adolescence often find themselves facing negative body image, a rampant problem fueled by popular culture and its impossible ideal of female beauty.

Related: Raising healthy kids: Mental health a huge challenge for Canadian youngsters

Let’s set aside the need for a larger conversation around that daunting issue for the time being. As parents, we can make a difference in one or two or three teenagers’ lives at least, those of our own kids. And we can start by shattering those beauty myths, and proposing a healthier, more realistic ideal for them to aspire to.

Related: What is proper nutrition for kids, really?

That’s bound to help with self-esteem, but the larger picture is that we want our children to be mentally healthy and happy, and that is much easier to achieve if they are physically sound and active. A recent U.S. study found that girls who play two or more sports score 10% higher on standard self-esteem tests. They’re also 21% more likely to perceive themselves as successful in school, and 13% more likely to graduate from a post-secondary program.

The above-mentioned study deals with team sports like softball and basketball, and of course these sports have a social element that may play as big a role as physical activity in achieving such positive outcomes. But let’s try to remember that pop culture aside, kids are also human. If they are strong and full of energy, they will likely be happier. Likewise if they like the way they look. Physical fitness is a plus for all those reasons, and it makes sense for us, as parents, to help promote this as a lifestyle. For healthier, happier kids that we hope will become healthier, happier adults.

Unfortunately, girls face obstacles here as well. In fact, only 61 percent of girls participate in sports, compared to 75% of boys. A number of girls in the U.S. study reported that they avoided sports due to a negative stigma, and the fear that their friends would think it meant they were gay. Again, this is an opportunity for us as parents to debunk some outdated stereotypes and perhaps help get our kids off the couch in one fell swoop.

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If our kids aren’t so competitive, then we can certainly encourage them to take up less competitive activities like

  1. Dance
  2. Yoga
  3. Horseback riding
  4. Golf
  5. Skateboarding, etc.

For more solitary kids, there’s always running and cycling. Weight training can also be a great way to get active, but if that’s the route your teenager chooses, make sure to consult a doctor or trainer first. A teenage body is still growing, and lifting heavy weight at that stage in your child’s growth can be dangerous.

Remind your child that exercise, like anything else, becomes a habit. It gets easier once it becomes part of their routine. And when they get started, whether it’s with a team sport or something else, remember to be extra-supportive, because they are unsure and looking to you for how to feel about this whole health thing.

“You did great!”

“What a goal!”

“You are awesome at rugby!”

“I love how hard you worked on this project.”

I’m proud of you!” The exclamation marks are optional, but the point is that positive reinforcement from you, and of course their peers, will increase the chances that a health kick will become just plain healthy living.

Hey, you know what’s also a good way to help our kids be healthy and happy? It’s giving them a good example to follow. Not to preach, but the example you set matters.

If you have a child that is starting to exercise for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, remind them to start slow. Rome was not built in a day, and they shouldn’t try to run 10K the first time. If they start with 1K or even 500 metres, and work their way towards loftier goals as they go along, they are much more likely to keep at it.

Beyond that, of course it’s important to encourage healthy eating and regular sleep to nurture your child’s body, and supportive relationships to nurture their mind.

The journey to a healthy lifestyle for your teenager is bound to be a bumpy road, so expect setbacks. Maybe the first sport or activity they try won’t be the one for them. It might take a few false starts before your couch potato becomes that healthy kid they deserve to be. Patience. With a little help, they’ll get there.

Related: Six surprising benefits of exercise