March 7, 2018

Teens and the Gym; Healthful or Harmful?

When I was working in the fitness industry, I seem to recall and age limit to participation in fitness classes and weight rooms.  I never saw a pre-teen or teenager under the age of 18 years working out with the free weights or in my spin classes.

But lately, I have been hearing stories of parents who have exposed (or in their words, invited) their teen to join them for the latest in HIIT training or pilates or yoga.  At first glance, and I am very sure the motivation behind the invitation, it is a good introduction to physical activity, but from my perspective, it's the equivalent of handing them a lit cigarette, or worse, an energy drink.

I have been very critical of my own perspective, wondering if I'm just done with the fitness industry but after some serious soul searching, I do believe we are asking for trouble when we take our teens into adult oriented fitness.  It's not so much the activity but the culture of fitness that I see as the health hazard.  We now know that weight bearing activity in pre-adolescents  / adolescents isn't harmful anymore (they used to think it would stunt the growth plates of growing bone). We know that group fitness offers an enjoyable group exercise experience that many teens enjoy.  What we don't consider however, is the exposure teens get emerged in an environment focused on body aesthetic, fat loss, and the social comparison that goes with the fitness culture.

Fitness leadership, for example, continues to focus on fat blasting and spot reducing activities that place the focus on the extrinsic rewards of exercise (versus the intrinsic rewards of better health).  An impressionable teen (say...a 13 year old girl), learning more about how she is viewed by others and what is going to lead to positive attention or define her as a "good, moral citizen" may internal the inevitable messages of the fitness environment and literally (and figuratively) "run with it".

Unfortunately, parents are not equipped with the knowledge of what a fitness culture is or the harmful effects it may have on both adults and kids.  I do. I've worked in it and studied it for over 20 years. So I write this post with the objective of sharing this information; to support parents in making healthy decisions when suggesting physical activities for their kids.

Nothing bad has ever come from a bike ride in the woods, a swim in a like, or a dog walk with family.  For physical activity to become a life long habit, we have to focus on the intrinsic, health related rewards we receive versus the best exercise that will blast the fat or "get lean" from.  That's only moving our children down the path of negative body image and shame.

That's all I got.

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