The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify one-third of all American teenagers as overweight and 17 percent as obese. Why? Well, today’s youth eat too much and exercise too little. Also, unfortunately, these teens more likely suffer from anxiety and depression than do kids who gravitate toward nutritious snacks and engage in frequent physical activity.
Moreover, a recent article in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care reports conclusive evidence of a relationship among eating issues, physical activity and mental health. Nutritious food choices and moderate amounts of activity, it appears, can prevent teenage mood disorders.
Of course a good diet can improve a child’s overall health – parents have known that for decades! Nutritious meals lay a foundation for a healthy lifestyle that boosts the immune system, regulates weight and prevents disease. Exercise, however, can have an immediate impact on any adolescent’s mood. A mild amount will send the neurotransmitter dopamine through the body, turning even the most angst-ridden teen a bit more joyful. Taking that activity outside can further boost mood because sunlight, which is full of vitamin D, acts as a natural antidepressant.
Many teens, unfortunately, feel they lack the time to exercise because they’re doing homework, working part-time jobs and socializing with friends. Some also think they must engage in a heart-pumping sport to net any gains. But that’s not the case. Any activity that encourages a child to move benefits the body and the brain alike. A brisk walk with the family dog or a few minutes of hoops before dinner can make a great difference. The key to exercise involves regularity.
Teens also need to be educated on the virtues of physical activity. Although exercise builds muscle, more important, it nicely relieves stress. A run around the block or a game of tennis can really brighten a bad day. Exercise also customarily serves as a natural relaxant. Sleep comes easily a few hours after gym-time, as the body cools and the day’s tension wanes. Less stress and better sleep make a winning combination that even a cranky teen will embrace.
Given the hectic nature of family life, creating an environment where teens value exercise requires determination, planning and encouragement – but creating a healthy home remains worth the effort. As kids enter adulthood, they continue the habits they developed earlier in life, and fit kids turn into fit adults who are confident, resilient and successful.
Prior to going into private practice as a psychotherapist and learning-disabilities specialist, Russell Hyken, Ph.D., Ed.S., M.A., LPC, NCC, worked for more than 15 years as an English teacher, school counselor and school administrator. Visit him online at ed-psy.com.