Preadolescence is a time of major change and growth, bringing psychological, physical and social shifts for boys and girls alike. Caught between the carefree days of childhood and the first throes of being a teenager, “tweens” (roughly aged 9–12) are a force to be reckoned with. Like many other populations, preadolescents are suffering from lack of exercise, which threatens to chart a course toward obesity and disease.

Although preadolescents haven’t yet joined the workforce, many aspects of their video-gaming, desk-bound lives mirror that of adults who sit at computers and televisions all day. Fitness professionals are well-positioned to help young people extend their lifespan through exercise interventions. However, preadolescence is a tough “between phase.” If you’re training or teaching preteens, you can’t treat them like children or like adults.

Practical Tips for Getting Tweens to Exercise

Preadolescents have grown up in a universe of technology and instant access and gratification. One way to get creative is to use fitness technology to engage tweens in their “world.” In late September, Life Fitness released its 2012 Fitness and Technology Survey, which found that “72% of exercisers surveyed use technology to support their workouts. More than half of respondents consider themselves more successful at achieving their weight and fitness goals because of technology” (Life Fitness 2012).

This survey—covering seven countries—targeted exercisers who owned tablets or smartphones. Of these exercisers, 72% of the younger (under-30) respondents said they used their devices outside the gym, accessing social media, apps and websites to track their progress; and 76% of the younger respondents said that “better technological access to personal content will make them work out more.” This may be an ideal entry point for engaging preadolescents.

Trainers and group fitness instructors who specialize in this age group have become very creative about finding ways to engage tweens in fitness (which used to be called “play”). Toni Tirapelli is the founder and CEO of STARS Sports and Educational Programs, in Elk Grove, California. “If fitness and nutrition are taught in a way that’s informative and exciting, kids are more receptive,” she says. “Make it fun, exciting and positive—and don’t forget to work out with them. You are their role model, and so are their parents, so educate the parents too.

“I rev them up by asking what sports or activities they enjoy,” she continues. “They yell out football, baseball, dodgeball, etc. I then ask, ‘So, what muscles do you use in these activities?’ They answer legs, arms, lungs, heart and so on. Once they’re amped up from calling out their answers, I ask them, ‘Do you want to play longer, jump higher, run faster and have a lot of fun without getting tired?’ They get the link and become much more receptive about participating.”

Tirapelli has more advice for fitness professionals, taken directly from the field. “Kids don’t like drill sergeants, and you may be the only positive influence in their lives. The STARS program was used as supplemental curriculum in the Elk Grove School District one year. The pre- and post-test results showed that kids’ spelling and reading scores went up 73% after just 4 weeks of 15 minutes of exercise a day.”

Sarah Jane Parker, a personal trainer from Gillette, Wyoming, has taught cardio dance to (mostly) girls aged 7–12. She is also doing some one-on-one training with this age group. “An adult may be able to tolerate 30 minutes on equipment, but children this age quickly become bored. Keep their attention with activities such as indoor rock climbing, park workouts, bike riding, ice-skating and boxing. Be consistent with certain activities so the children can get proficient and feel a sense of accomplishment. Don’t expect them to respond to training as an adult would. [Adjust your approach,] including how you talk to them, how you motivate them and especially how you focus on the task at hand. Avoid making it all about weight. Instead, emphasize the importance of strength, skill and enjoyment.”

As someone who has worked extensively with this age group, Brett Klika, director of athletic programs for Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, has a lot of practical advice. “We focus on foundational movement patterns, strength and the life skills that exercise and training teach,” he says. “We’ve found that the race to get kids to perform for a particular sport has neglected the development of overall physical skill. You’ll see our kids crawling, rolling, climbing, grasping and performing other drills like this. We often put them into games.”

Klika recommends a big-picture, low-key approach to working with tweens. “Don’t get caught up in the race to turn kids into pro athletes,” he says. “Prepare them for a lifelong relationship with exercise. Kids want to have fun. Don’t think that decreasing a kid’s 40-yard dash time will accomplish anything meaningful. We have had numerous kids start to embrace exercise as a way of life—which is rewarding—as we see them grow into happy, healthy, pain-free adults.”

Coming from a background in musical theatre and dance, Ariana Ziskin of Mesa, Arizona, works with preadolescents as a director, choreographer and teaching artist. “Remember that everything you say will have an impact,” she says. “I was an overweight kid, and the things my teachers said to me still influence who I am today, as well as my perceptions of myself physically. Focus on the positive. Lead by example. Make it about the activity, not about fitness or weight. Praise their progress, but be sure it’s about the activity, not their physical appearance. Compare them to their own progress, not to each other. I’ve seen so many students come in hating dance because it scares them. They are not in excellent physical shape, but by the end they love it because they gain confidence and learn to enjoy physical activity.”

In her Badass (she calls them “Bad Donkeys”) Bootcamps, Shannon Colavecchio, Tallahassee, Florida–based CEO of Badass Fitness, emphasizes drills and core work. She includes shuttle runs, suicides, leapfrogs, crab walks, lunges, running on stadium stairs or ramps (at Florida State University, no less), burpees, push-ups, triceps dips and partner drills. Her goals are to help young people get stronger, faster and more agile and to give them a confidence boost.

“The kids in this age group are just starting to get into sports, so give them an ‘active break’ from the tedium of sport practice,” she says. “Also, since kids this age are not fully developed physiologically, they can overheat faster or might have asthma that they haven’t yet learned to control, so monitor and pace [activities] accordingly. Equipment like the TRX® Suspension Trainer™ is better than heavy weights, as it doesn’t stress their still-developing bodies.”

Another person who has extensive experience with this group is Karen Jashinsky, MBA, founder and chief fitness officer of O2 Max Fitness, in Santa Monica, California. “A lot of the kids I work with usually fall into one of several categories: They want to get better at something specific, they’re looking for a noncompetitive environment where they can feel comfortable and confident, or they are starting to go through puberty and want an opportunity to ask questions about it in a more intimate setting.”

What is the secret to working with this age group, according to Jashinsky? “Be patient. Be able to connect and adapt based on the kid’s needs and personality,” she says. “Be realistic in your expectations.”

The overarching theme, both in the research and from the fitness pros who work with tweens, is to have fun. Adults can overlook fun for a while because they can easily visualize future rewards. With preteens, the reward has to be in the present (instant gratification). Your personality and ability to engage are probably more important than your ability to design a comprehensive workout plan. Be prepared, yes, but even more so, prepare for fun!

To read the full article that ran in the January 2013 issue of the IDEA Fitness Journal click here.