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Getting Kids & Adolescents Excited About Exercise

Children are not simply small adults when it comes to getting and staying fit; they present their own unique challenges in terms of exercise motivation and adherence.

It seems that every time you turn on the news these days, someone is proclaiming the benefits of participating in a regular exercise program. We’ve been told that engaging in even minimal amounts of regular exercise can decrease the risk of stroke and heart attack; lower blood pressure and cholesterol; increase muscle mass; deplete body fat; improve strength, endurance, flexibility, mental outlook, self-image and self-confidence; and generally enhance the quality of life.

Adults can absorb this information and appreciate the benefits of lowering their future health risks, increasing their longevity and enhancing their ability to keep performing the regular activities of daily living. With time and functioning taking on new importance with age, they may be more motivated to exercise on a regular basis, even if they hate every hard-earned moment spent working out!

Unfortunately, most children and adolescents are not mature enough to understand the health benefits of a regular exercise program. First of all, they haven’t lived long enough to experience the “ills” of failing health. And youth being wasted on the young, they are not apt to recognize their own mortality, which seems very far off in the future. Yet, engaging in physical activity and understanding its worth at an early age offer many immediate benefits: development of motor skills needed for enjoyable participation in physical activities; appreciation of physical fitness; increased energy expenditure; and promotion of a positive attitude toward an active lifestyle. There is even evidence that being physically active during youth may enhance a child’s academic performance, self-concept and mental health (Babey et al. 2005).

Fitness professionals have the power and ability to steer children and adolescents toward the road to wellness. But to be successful at instilling motivation and adherence in your young charges, you need to understand what makes them tick so you can guide them in a positive, helpful and constructive fashion. Here are some real-world motivation strategies to employ on your future athletes, recreational exercisers and fitness enthusiasts.

Stages of Development

When it comes to exercise, the basic manner in which human beings are motivated is determined by their current developmental stage. A child will respond to certain stimuli and encouragement differently than a teenager who is more emotionally developed. Conversely, what inspires an adolescent will have little influence on a much younger child.

That’s why it is important to be cognizant of, and to familiarize yourself with, the psychological factors that motivate each age group to begin and adhere to a regular exercise program. This knowledge will allow you to incorporate age-appropriate motivation strategies into your training repertoire. Having these tools at your disposal will increase your chances of captivating your young audience and will keep them coming back for more.

Kids Just Want to Have Fun

When it comes to motivating the younger set, it’s all about fun. Make a physical activity fun and appealing, and most children up to age 11 or 12 will engage in it every opportunity they get. However, present them with an activity they deem “boring” or “too hard,” and they will avoid it like the plague. According to the authors of Trim Kids: The Proven 12-Week Plan That Has Helped Thousands of Children Achieve a Healthier Weight, when children are left to their own devices, “most would prefer to burn calories outside playing tag, swinging, chasing balls or throwing themselves into a pile of fallen leaves” (Sothern et al. 2001). In short, kids are more likely to engage in regular physical activity when it is fun, comfortable, convenient and intrinsically rewarding.

Intrinsic motivation comes from inside oneself; enjoying the feeling of becoming stronger, or just plain feeling good, is an intrinsic motivator. Extrinsic motivation typically stems from an outside force; verbal praise or rewards are common external motivators. As a rule, children tend to be motivated more by intrinsic forces, whereas adolescents are usually more influenced by extrinsic factors.

“Children are born with a natural curiosity, a love of playtime, a will to overcome small challenges and a pride in mastery,” says Michelle May, MD, co-author of H Is for Healthy: Weight Management for Kids. “They are frustrated by boring, regimented, uncomfortable or overwhelming tasks. The more closely ‘exercise’ meets these innate tendencies, the more easily [children] are motivated to engage in the activity. Unfortunately in our society, physical activity is no longer a convenient, natural or necessary part of our day-to-day existence. Bike riding, sports and active play have to compete with television, computers and video games, which easily meet young people’s need for adventure, play and even mastery” (May & Cosby 2005).

In my own career working with children as both a personal fitness trainer and a psychotherapist, I have found that the key to success is to focus on the fun factor. If children perceive exercise as “work” or as a source of pain, they will do whatever they can to avoid it and will likely carry this negative attitude about physical activity into their adult lives. Plus, their boredom will make you have to work harder as a trainer to keep them engaged when their minds are wandering and disinterested.

I remember an experience I had with an 11-year-old boy who was clinically obese. The last thing he wanted to do was exercise (his parents had bribed him into attending training sessions)—especially not with some old lady like me! Admittedly it took me several sessions of trial and error to figure out what would hold this young boy’s attention and keep him moving his body. (Early on, I discovered that my traditional adult workouts were never going to work with this client.) After many awkward conversations and much exploration (and a little bit of frustration on both sides), I discovered that he loved basketball and any kind of contest of skills (e.g., how far he could shoot a basketball into the hoop, how many sit-ups he could perform in 1 minute, etc.). In time, I became very creative designing exercises and activities that honed his basketball skills and could be presented as new “contests.” Although this certainly was not your typical weight training or cardiovascular training program, it worked because it got this boy to move his body and simultaneously kept him engaged and wanting more. Furthermore, because he was having fun doing the exercises, he continued to do them throughout the week even when he was not meeting with me, thus fulfilling the ultimate goal of exercise adherence and self-motivation.

Another factor that is vital in instilling exercise motivation and adherence in clients of all ages is to create a program that allows the clients to experience some form of success every time. Numerous studies over the years have shown that perceived competence in an activity is a major psychological mediator (Douthitt 1994; Ntoumanis 2001). Part of your job when training kids is to create fitness programs that instill and reinforce the belief that the youngsters are capable of performing an activity (even if they’ve never tried it before). Your programs also need to provide these clients some measure of success, regardless of the level of competency they display. For example, using positive verbal cues during a new activity is a good motivating tool and can positively change a child’s perspective of the experience.

Adolescent Angst

Adolescence, in particular, represents a period of significant physical, cognitive and psychosocial development. The attitudes and health practices developed in adolescence continue into adulthood and play a major role in the development of health beliefs and habits.

Some of the same factors that motivate children to exercise also work with teens ages 13–18; for example, instilling a level of fun and creating a measure for success. However, adolescents tend to be more influenced than younger children by extrinsic factors, such as material rewards or verbal encouragement. Additionally, adolescents gain greater self-esteem and self-confidence when they improve their levels of physical fitness, and they have the intellectual maturity to understand and appreciate these improvements.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that there is a tendency for young people to abandon physical activity at about age 11 or 12. This is what Kenneth H. Cooper, MD, dubbed the “adolescent slump” (Cooper 1991). In his book Kid Fitness: A Complete Shape-Up Program From Birth Through High School, Cooper cites several reasons why many preteens fall prey to this slump:

  • constant failure when competing
  • youth at different developmental stages being mismatched in activities that require the same skill level
  • too much organization, too many practice drills and too
    little time for fun
  • emotional stress from excessive performance demands in the past
  • regular negative feedback from coaches and parents
  • not getting to participate, owing to lack of skills (Cooper 1991)

Compared to children, adolescents also face many more physiological and emotional changes, which can impact the desire to exercise. This is a time when boys and girls begin to notice members of the opposite gender and do anything they can to attract attention. Fitness professionals can appeal to this budding sense of vanity by educating them about the myriad ways that a physical fitness program can help them build muscle mass and lose or gain weight. Participating in a regular fitness routine, the adolescents will personally experience improved self-esteem and an enhanced emotional state. By engaging in sporting activities, they will enjoy a sense of belonging, which can help them feel more popular.

Although adolescents can be motivated by many external factors, it is important also to find intrinsic motivators when working with this group. According to Jim Afremow, PhD, a sports psychology consultant at Arizona State University’s sports medicine department and an applied sport psychology consultant for young athletes, “Parents and coaches make the mistake of overemphasizing extrinsic reasons for sport participation, such as winning and receiving awards. Emphasizing intrinsic reasons, such as having fun and learning new skills, is more beneficial.” Afremow recommends that trainers and coaches ask adolescents the right kind of questions, such as “What did you learn from this exercise?” or “Which drill was most fun?” as opposed to “wrong” questions, such as “Did you win?” or “What was the final score?”

Afremow also advises that fitness professionals who work with adolescents should “look for any and all opportunities to reward positive behavior with ‘strokes’ (e.g., smiling or noticing small accomplishments) rather than reacting with indifference or relying on rewards (e.g., trophies).” He agrees with other childhood motivation experts that the number-one motive for participating in both nonschool and school sports for both boys and girls is to have fun.

My own experience working with this age group is testament to the fact that adolescents work well in a group setting. Time after time, I have witnessed the change in attitude in an “exercise-resistant” young person after he or she was introduced to group participation. Instead of focusing on hating to exercise, the adolescent quickly got caught up in the camaraderie and fun of being with peers.

Adhering to the Program

Inspiring children or adolescents to participate in physical activity is only half the battle. More challenging, perhaps, is finding ways to keep them motivated, or, in other words, getting them to adhere to a regular exercise routine. Adherence among young people appears to depend on a variety of psychological, physical, social and situational factors (Douthitt 1994).

Although adolescents are at a different developmental stage than their younger counterparts, what creates program adherence for children often holds true for teens. The exceptions appear to be that male adolescents adhere to a program if it offers “perceived romantic appeal,” whereas female adolescents keep participating because of “perceived athletic competency, perceived global self-worth and perceived physical appearance” (Douthitt 1994).

Perhaps the most significant psychological factor that causes any young person to adhere to an exercise program is self-motivation. Individuals who are self-motivated are inclined to stick to self-monitored exercise programs for longer periods of time than those who are not highly self-motivated (Sullivan 1991).

One way to ensure that your young charges adhere to regular exercise is to devise programs that they will do without you! By designing programs that cater to their interests and needs, you will essentially be teaching these clients to do the activities independently. Consequently, they will be more inclined to participate in the activities when they are on their own.

Besides their interest in specific activities, other factors that play a role in adherence among kids are their attitudes toward physical activity in general and their self-confidence in being able to maintain their programs over the long term. To tap into all these factors, you need to develop programs based on the children’s short- and long-term fitness goals.

Setting Goals

Setting fitness goals can be an effective way to enhance kids’ motivation and improve the likelihood of developing the habit of exercise. However, to be most effective, the fitness goals must

  • be specific;
  • be realistic but also challenging; and
  • include outcomes and tasks.

To improve the chances of success, goals should be specific to the child. For example, trainer and client should agree on an exact number of pounds the child will aim to lose or gain, within a specific time frame. In other words, rather than saying, “I want to lose weight,” the goal should be measurable: “I want to lose 5 pounds by the end of the school year.”

Next, goals need to be realistic but definitely challenging. If a routine is too difficult, kids will have little chance to experience success and you will likely lose them early on. Worse yet, the experience could leave them with a bad taste in the mouth for future activities they deem similar. If the routine isn’t challenging enough, however, you run the risk of boring the kids, and they won’t stick around long enough to reap the rewards of physical activity. The trick here is to take the time to evaluate the needs, desires and current abilities of each individual child. Your best bet is to encourage gradual but challenging changes. Incremental goals will keep motivation high while giving participants an ongoing sense of achievement. Once clients begin developing a sense of accomplishment, they will be motivated to try even harder.

Finally, goals need to contain both the outcome and the exact tasks needed to achieve that outcome. In other words, the tasks are the behaviors a young person will perform to achieve a desired goal. When dealing with younger children, such tasks tend to be more generalized in nature, perhaps along the lines of simply participating in any sport on a regular basis. With adolescents, the goals can be more specific, since this is an age when clients want to improve their athletic skills or lose weight to enhance their physical appearance. For example, if the outcome goal is to qualify for the junior varsity football team in 5 weeks, the specific tasks might include running drills three times a week for 30 minutes, performing 50 sit-ups every day and throwing passes twice a week for 30 minutes. Taking the time to quantify outcomes and tasks will increase a kid’s belief in being able to achieve his or her desired goals. This concept is known as self-efficacy, or the belief that one is able to accomplish a particular task. Research has shown that self-efficacy leads to better adherence because believing that fitness goals are achievable will cause kids to try harder, which in turn increases their chances of success (Lenti 1996).

Other Factors at Play

Increasing enjoyment is one of the most effective means of boosting adherence, as most people will participate in activities they find fun. Once again, this underscores the importance of introducing young clients to fitness programs that are fun and engaging and that offer a positive overall experience. This can be accomplished by taking the time to uncover each child’s personal likes and dislikes before you design his or her specific program.

Another thing to consider when designing a program is the client’s general physical abilities and fitness level. If you include exercises that are too intense, the youngster will probably perceive the exertion level to be overwhelming and be more likely to quit. It’s also important to let the child or teen feel part of the process when designing specific exercises. There is an increased risk of dropout when young clients perceive that they lack choice in the selected activities (Cooper 1991).

Adolescents and children are also greatly impacted by the value systems to which their families subscribe. Social support is a key environmental factor in exercise adherence, and family support is the most important type of social reinforcement. Parents, siblings and other immediate family members need to be emotionally supportive of exercise participants. Positive verbal reinforcement and occasional rewards are very effective motivators for helping kids continue a desired behavior. Joining children in physical activities is also a wonderful way for parents to show support. For practical ways that family members can help kids stay motivated, see “Team Up With Parents” on page 52.

Building a Bridge to Tomorrow

As a fitness professional, you have the power to help shape a new generation of active, fitness-minded adults. The impact you have on the children and adolescents you train today will be reflected in the health and fitness of our nation in the years to come. But in order to make an impact, you need to know how to motivate kids of different ages and how to design exercise programs that will foster lifelong adherence. Childhood experiences form the basis of our perceptions as adults. Today’s children and adolescents are tomorrow’s future, and their future depends on the opportunities we create for them today.

What Motivates Kids?

Motivation is a critical factor for getting and keeping kids moving. Here are some strategies to increase exercise motivation and adherence in a young charge:

  • Find out the child’s (or teen’s) preferences, needs and exercise history (where applicable).
  • Tailor the exercise program to the child’s skill level and personal preferences.
  • Offer choices of activities and programs so the child feels part of the process.
  • Initiate an exercise program suited to the child’s abilities and fitness level; but make sure the program is challenging, has minimal injury risk and creates an opportunity for success to be measured.
  • Provide positive feedback whenever possible.
  • Encourage participation with peers in group activities, which can facilitate increased adherence due to social reinforcement and a sense of camaraderie.
  • Emphasize variety and enjoyment in the program.
  • Incorporate personal goal setting, and devise a system to demonstrate progress; for example, create a wall chart where the child can check off each goal as it is completed.
  • Provide experiences that foster confidence in the skills employed during the activity.
  • Recognize accomplishments through a system of positive verbal reinforcement cues and other rewards.
  • Teach the child how to exercise independently.
  • As a facility, provide qualified and enthusiastic instructors who appeal to kids.

Team Up With Parents

Parents have an incredible amount of influence on the attitudes their growing children develop about physical activity. Therefore, the parental support system can be crucial to the success or failure of any fitness program you design. Here are some ways parents can increase their youngsters’ motivational levels and ultimately affect whether their kids adhere to exercise:

  • Praise their children when they commit to a physical activity or sport and when they continue with the program; couch praise in terms of the kids’ accomplishments, not their scores!
  • Find ways to reward their kids when appropriate; instead of focusing on a monetary reward system, give out movie tickets or an inexpensive trophy.
  • Take an active interest in whatever activity their kids engage in and get involved with any volunteer work needed.
  • Spend spare time engaging in physical activities with their youngsters; start young to build good habits over childhood.
  • Model good behavior by living a healthy, active lifestyle; refrain from obsessing about their own weight and focus instead on overall health.


Babey, S., et al. 2005. California Adolescents Increasingly Inactive. University of California at Los Angeles health policy research brief, April (PB 2005–3), 1–7.
Cooper, K. H. 1991. Kid Fitness: A Complete Shape-Up Program From Birth Through High School. New York: Bantam Books.
Douthitt, V.L. 1994. Psychological determinants of adolescent exercise adherence. National Library of Medicine, 29 (115), 711–22.
Kilpatrick, M., Bartholomew. J., & Herbert, E. 2003. Behavioral regulation in physical activity: A comparison of sport and exercise motivation. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 35 (5, Suppl.), S150.
Lenti, F. 1996. Motivating Young Athletes. Sports Science Library; www.gssiweb.com.
May, M., & Cosby, E.T. 2005. H Is for Healthy: Weight Management for Kids. Gilbert, AZ: SWAK Pak.
Ntoumanis, N. 2001. A self-determination approach to the understanding of motivation in physical education. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 71 (2), 225–42.
Sothern, M.S., et al. 2001. Trim Kids: The Proven 12-Week Plan That Has Helped Thousands of Children Achieve a Healthier Weight. New York: HarperCollins.
Sudy, M. 1991. Personal Trainer Manual: The Resource for Fitness Instructors. San Diego: American Council on Exercise.
Sullivan, P. 1991. Exercise adherence. ERIC Digest, ED330676.

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