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exercise and adolescents

Adolescence, which is usually defined as the time when children are between the ages of 12 and 18, is often a difficult period. So much is changing for young people, especially their bodies.

As their bodies develop and mature, it is important that teens and pre-teens get a healthy amount of exercise. 80% of Australian children are sufficiently active and only 20 to 25% would be considered to be overweight or obese. Children who are sufficiently active, particularly those who participate in vigorous-intensity sports at least 3 - 4 times per week, enjoy a lower risk of developing "lifestyle diseases" later in life and are also laying the foundations of a healthy adult lifestyle.

What is the information for this topic? 
Here are 10 questions and answers that many teens ask about exercise:

What are the benefits of exercise? Exercise makes the heart and lungs strong, increases strength and endurance, and helps maintain a healthy weight. It can change a person's body shape by building or defining certain muscle groups over time. Exercise can also help alter body composition, increasing the ratio of muscle to fat. And most people who exercise regularly feel healthier and more alert.

How should an exercise program be started? It is wise to talk with a doctor first, especially if there are health problems that might affect the types of exercise chosen. Then consult with someone who understands the mechanics of exercise, like a coach or a fitness expert at a gym. He or she will select a program that combines aerobic activity, which focuses on the heart and lungs, with weight training, which concentrates on strengthening and conditioning the muscles.

What kind of exercise is best? Different types of exercise build up different muscle groups. For instance, rowing, cross-country skiing, push-ups, and pull-ups are good for building arm muscles. For strong legs, running, biking, inline skating, and ice-skating work well. And for the stomach muscles, rowing and crunches are great.

How much exercise is enough? Teenagers should do some sort of aerobic exercise two or three times a week, for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Many teens who play team sports may do even more than what's recommended--and that's great! The heart gets stronger and they will be able to do more and more exercise without getting tired. Team sports that make the heart strong include swimming, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, ice and roller hockey, and rowing. Exercise, like most things in life, is best done in moderation. Too much, too soon, can create injuries or cross the line to compulsive exercise.

What are the advantages of organised sport? Many people believe there is a connection between taking part in sports and personal growth and development. Leadership, responsibility, initiative, and cooperation are all positive qualities usually ascribed to the results of regular exercise. Adolescents who exercise score higher in positive personality traits and social acceptance than those who do not exercise. Also, in a recent study, men who were labeled nonathletic as a teenager recall feeling inferior and inadequate as an adolescent.

Is it possible to lose weight by exercising? Losing weight is about expending more energy than the amount of kilojoules taken in. Fourteen thousand kilojoules equals half a kilogram. So by taking in 14,000 kilojoules less than is burned, the result is a half-kilo weight loss. Since exercise is a good way of burning energy, it is possible to lose weight by exercise. Although exercise is part of the safe and healthy way to control weight, teens may have unrealistic expectations. They are bombarded with images from advertisers of the ideal body being young and thin for women and strong and muscular for men. To try to reach these unreasonable body ideals, teens may turn to diets, which develop into eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. If they are frustrated with the results from diet alone, compulsive exercise may be added to speed up weight loss.

The body needs enough kilojoules to function properly. Teens often have growth spurts, and may need even more kilojoules. Teens are still growing and will continue to do so throughout the teen years and they need extra energy to fuel the growth.

How can a person get the most out of exercise? Exercise helps the body the most when a person:
  • eats healthy foods, following the Australian Guide To Healthy Eating
  • gets enough protein in the diet
  • gets enough sleep so the body has time to rest and recover between workouts
  • avoids anabolic steroids, which are powerful chemicals that can cause liver problems and increase the risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke
Are there any risks to exercise? The most common complaint is pain or swelling in the joints after working out. Pain during or after a workout is a clear sign that exercise is being done the wrong way or is being done too often. Sports safety guidelines should be followed to minimise pain and swelling. Girls who exercise too much can stop getting their periods. Any of these symptoms should be reported to the doctor right away.

What are overuse injuries? During an adolescent growth spurt, the bones grow so quickly that a height increase of 1.5 cm in a month is not uncommon. At the same time, the muscles and tendons spanning these rapidly growing bones don't lengthen as quickly and they get much tighter. This loss of flexibility increases the risk of overuse injuries, especially in the knee.

A teen is prone to overuse injuries in the lower back because the spine grows faster than its muscles and tendons. The resulting tightness may even alter a child's posture, and such a change is likely to cause injury.

Can exercise stunt growth? Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, one of the best things teenagers can do for their health is to decide on an exercise routine and then stick with it. The body will benefit, not just in the teen years, but in adult life as well.

Author: Dr. Karen Wolfe, MBBS, MA
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 19/02/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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