Understanding What Teens Think About Exercise

Author Marla Richmond shares how and why she started working with teens and what she’s learned from these young clients.

As a health and fitness educator and an exercise physiologist, I have enjoyed working with a variety of populations for many years. However, I began working with teens only recently. I knew the percentage of overweight children and adolescents in the United States was growing. I also knew that obese children and adolescents are more likely to become obese adults at high risk for disease—and that an increasing number of teens were leading sedentary lifestyles. Furthermore, as a mother of two teens, I had observed firsthand how they would sit for hours in front of computer screens, mindlessly grazing on empty-calorie, high-fat foods. All these factors prompted me to organize a pilot wellness and workout class for teens in 1999.

From this pilot class, I realized that many teens are not ready to learn about health and fitness, or are not interested, and working with teens no longer seemed such a good idea. But in time I discovered that when teens are ready to learn, they are open, eager and willing. They want to work with someone they feel comfortable with and can trust, and they seek that person out. Over the last three years, I have worked closely with 27 teens.

The Pilot Class

Word about the pilot class spread quickly to the friends of my seventh grade daughter and to the daughters of my clients. Twenty-five seventh-grade girls took part. I met with them once a week for four weeks. My goal was to provide a brief lecture about the components of a healthy and balanced lifestyle (see illustration on page 22), followed by a group exercise class.

During the entire one-hour class, many of the girls chatted. They crumpled up candy wrappers and talked on their cell phones. I attempted to speak above their noise. The girls’ attention span was nonexistent, their motivation even less. They were clearly not interested in another educational experience or even a structured exercise class after a full day of school.

Sara, a precocious, bright and socially savvy 13 1/2-year-old, heckled me from the back row. “Why should we listen to you?” she asked. “What makes you think you know everything about exercise and nutrition?” I explained that no one knows everything about anything, that we are always learning.

Who would have thought that one year later Sara would come to me weighing only 88 pounds and looking like a 10-year-old prepubescent girl? She wanted help, and she insisted on working with me.

After speaking with her parents, I talked to health care professionals, including a psychiatrist in charge of the eating disorder clinic at a local hospital. Working with this psychiatrist, we formulated an approach to educate Sara about the components of healthy and balanced nourishment. Together, Sara and I went to the grocery store and to restaurants, and we created meals in my kitchen. I took walks with her, and as her weight and health normalized, we began to run and weight train. Today, Sara is 16 years old and, at 5 feet 2 inches tall, weighs 111 pounds. Most important, she loves her strong, well-nourished body.

Why Did I Decide to Work With Teens?

The truth is, I didn’t. After my first experience in the pilot class, I actually vowed never to work with teens again. However, I changed my mind because of kids like Sara, who were not ready to listen at 13 years old, but who needed someone to turn to when they were ready to ask for help.

I changed my mind because of boys like Ben, a son of one of my clients. Ben came to me at the age of 15 because he could not participate in a regular physical education class in school. He was weak and feeble because he suffered from childhood rheumatoid arthritis. Six months after we began working together, Ben ran for the first time in his life on one of my treadmills.

Ben and I worked together for three years until he went to college—strong and confident. He currently works out two to three times a week at school and can run an eight-minute mile. I communicate with him via e-mail throughout the school year, and he works out with me during the summer when he is home from college.

I changed my mind also because of girls like Jenny, the 15-year-old daughter of another client. Although Jenny was a hockey player, she did not take care of herself. Her mother asked me simply to talk to her. To win Jenny’s approval, all I had to do was outrun her and “kick her butt,” as she put it. She was so impressed that she begged her gym teacher to invite me to speak to her classmates during their “Fit for Life” class.

At Jenny’s request, I began lecturing at a high school in suburban Chicago, speaking to teens about the importance of living a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Initially, the students appeared disinterested. They immediately perked up when I took off my “professor-like” blazer and revealed my well-defined arms.

Gradually I began to work with more and more teens. They wanted real answers to their health questions, in language they could understand. They wanted a safe, nonjudgmental, caring and noncompetitive environment in which to exercise and learn. I believe they were also looking for a mentor they could emulate—someone other than their teachers or their parents. They wanted someone who was accessible and real.

Teens Speak Out

Last year, I developed a questionnaire that was distributed to over 1,500 teens by the physical education department at a suburban Chicago high school. The goal of the questionnaire was to learn more about teens—for example, to find out the following:

  •   their role models, their favorite television shows and what they liked to do in their spare time
  •   their parents’ exercise and nutrition habits (in order to understand how the teens developed their own attitudes about exercise and nutrition)
  •   whether they or their friends had used nutritional supplements or had participated in any quick weight loss regimens
  •   what they most wanted to know about health, exercise and nutrition
  •   what qualities they most respected and desired in a physical/health educator

I learned a great deal from these surveys. The girls were most curious about losing weight and about metabolism. They also wanted to know how to get rid of fat. They spent an average of two hours a day watching television shows like Friends, Dawson’s Creek and 7th Heaven. Many said they watched Friends because they were so stressed they wanted to laugh before they went to bed. They said the other shows provided characters, situations and issues they could relate to and learn from.

Many of the girls spent over one hour daily online talking to friends. More than half of them skipped breakfast. Few slept more than five to 6 1/2 hours a night.

Many girls said they would like to participate in progressive resistance training but didn’t know how to fit it into their already hectic schedule. Most girls had been on at least one diet. They also took vitamins and calcium pills to supplement their diet because they knew they didn’t eat well.

Most of the boys wanted to learn how to get big and “buff.” Very few, except for the wrestlers, had ever dieted. More than half of the boys took some sort of protein supplement, and creatine was the most frequently mentioned ergogenic aid. Many of their questions concerned the benefits and safety of these supplements. Like the girls, they averaged five to 6 1/2 hours of sleep a night and watched about two hours of television per day. The boys said they loved The Simpsons. Some even liked Friends as much as sports programs for the same reasons as the girls—it helped them “chill out” and destress.

More girls than boys said they were dissatisfied with their bodies. These girls expressed a desire to be thinner and more “toned,” especially in their abs. More girls than boys had personally suffered from an eating disorder or knew someone who had. The girls wanted to know about diet aids; the boys wanted information about bodybuilding aids.

The girls’ role models included their moms, dads and grandparents. The girls admired women like actresses Julia Roberts and Jennifer Aniston and singer Britney Spears because they were successful and pretty.

The boys were impressed with hockey player Mario Lemieux and cyclist Lance Armstrong because they had overcome tremendous adversity to become champions. They also mentioned Michael Jordan, the Pope, their parents and their grandparents.

Qualities the students looked for in health educators included the following:

  • They practice what they preach.
  • They know what they are talking about.
  • They understand teen issues, fears and motivation.
  • You can confide in them.
  • They are well educated and provide reliable knowledge and information.

Set Three Goals; Start With Small Changes

It has been three years since I began working with teens in my private practice and at eating disorder clinics in hospitals. Many of the questions teens ask me are so thought-provoking that I often feature them in my lectures.

For example, Jeffrey, a 16-year-old wrestler, was concerned that his extreme diet and exercise regimen might stunt his growth. He starved and dehydrated himself to cut weight so that he could wrestle in a lower weight division. I recently described his regimen to an audience of physical and health educators. They were shocked to hear the details, which are purported to be common practice among high-school wrestlers.

Sixteen-year-old Rebecca came to me because she was too embarrassed to wear a bathing suit at coed swim parties. Her family had a history of type 2 diabetes, and Rebecca was clearly at risk with a body mass index of 35; a high-calorie, high-fat diet; and a sedentary lifestyle. She asked me how she could get thin fast.

Jeffrey’s questions inspired me to find out more about high-school wrestlers, their dieting regimens and the possible effects of these regimens on growth. Rebecca’s reluctance to change, as well as her feelings of being overwhelmed by dietary restrictions and mandatory exercise, helped me develop an approach called “Three Goals: Small Change.” I currently use this approach with both adult and teen clients (see the illustration on page 24). Using this simple concept, I ask my clients to set three goals each week: one for physical activity, one for nutrition and one for stress management. Each day they make one or two small changes in each category. These changes add up to help clients attain their overall goals. For example, to meet her nutrition goals, one teen decided to watch her snacking. She started by making sure she ate breakfast each morning, and she asked her mom to buy individual serving-size bags of chips so she could limit her snacking intake.

Working Successfully With Teens

To work successfully with teens, fitness professionals need to learn the teen language and way of life. We must learn about teen issues, fears and motivation. We must gain teens’ trust and confidence—both professionally and emotionally. We must educate teens about the importance of each of the components of a healthy and balanced lifestyle. I have created the following 10-step model, which has been very successful with my teen clients:

1. Establish a Rapport. During the initial interview, obtain all relevant health information and, if necessary, a physician’s clearance. Determine the teens’ readiness to begin, and explain the program and policies. (This could be with a small group of teens, a pair of teens or just one teen.)

2. Get Them Psyched. In the initial meeting, talk to them about their life, habits, family, schedule, likes, dislikes and goals.

3. Help Them “Own” Their Decision. At the end of the initial meeting, the teens should decide whether or not to continue. If they decide to continue, assign them time slots or appropriate groups for one month. Request payment up front.

4. Educate Them. During the second meeting, teach the components of a healthy and balanced lifestyle—one component at a time and at a pace and level consistent with the teens’ ability and knowledge. Discuss various fitness assessments.

5. Set Three Goals; Discuss Small Changes. Set three goals for the week and discuss small changes the teens could make to attain their goals. Also discuss barriers and remedies.

6. Make the Commitment. Make a commitment to each other, understanding that the commitment goes both ways.

7. Plan the Program. After determining individual goals, offer guidance on achieving them and answer questions. Set up a four-week plan together.

8. Be Professionally Accessible. Be accessible via voice mail and/or e-mail. Always call clients once a week during the first month to discuss concerns or questions. Return all calls within 24 hours, preferably the same day.

9. Be Emotionally Accessible. Teens should know that in addition to being accessible professionally, you care about them and are available just to talk.

10. Add Special Touches. Learn about their favorite music and exercise preferences. Let them bring CDs and play them during class. Let them lead their favorite exercise. Celebrate their birthdays and other special occasions. Have their pictures on walls and bulletin boards. These special touches give teens a sense of belonging.

My teen fitness classes are eclectic. I incorporate a variety of themes, exercise techniques, media and resistance equipment. I rarely repeat the same exercise routine in any given month. I also let the teens help me create the classes. These tactics keep teens interested, invested and stimulated. They love to come back because they are curious to know what challenges await them.

Use Caution When Working With Teens

Working with teens can present unique challenges for fitness professionals, especially in a group exercise setting. Here are some pointers to keep in mind:

  • Teens of the same age may vary tremendously in their physiological and emotional development. Be sure to treat each teen individually.
  • Class times should take into account the teens’ schedules: homework, athletics or extracurricular activities. Many teens are available only nights and weekends.
  • Teens can be noisy and rowdy and annoying to the adult members of your classes. Provide strict safety and behavior codes.
  • Teen music can be loud or may contain offensive language. Screen all music at least once before playing it. But do try to play it, even if it’s a rap song with the same sentence repeated 500 times. (However, if the music is objectionable, has no redeeming value and would offend other members of the class, you may prefer not to play it.)

Final Thoughts

Working with teens has taught me a great deal about working with all clients. I have been reminded of the importance of providing a safe, warm and nourishing environment for the mind, body and spirit.

Be sure to take time to educate the teens you work with. Teens love it when I share current research and important facts that are relevant to them. They tell me they always leave class knowing a little bit more than when they arrived.

Many school activities involve competition with others. When teens come to my studio, they love being able to put competition with others aside and compete only with themselves. They find it empowering to see how fast, strong and healthy they can become with commitment and perseverance.

Like other clients, teens are individuals who bring with them all of the stress—good and bad—that they are experiencing on a given day. Sometimes they are tired; sometimes they are not. Remember, whatever they are (and however they perform) is okay.

As health and fitness professionals, it is our responsibility to ensure that teen clients are well educated, follow solid principles and use appropriate resistance and good technique. By doing so, we give teens the tools and information they need to make healthy lifestyle choices—not only through their teen years, but for their entire lives.

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Marla Richmond, MS

IDEA Author/Presenter
Marla Richmond, MS, is an exercise physiologist in private practice and has been a fitness professio... more less
March 2002

© 2002 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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