10 Perks for Teens Who Exercise

Fitness Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg, Study Shows

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on April 03, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

April 3, 2006 -- Teens who make exercise and physical activity a habit have a lot going for them, researchers report.

Melissa Nelson, RD, and Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD, found that physically active teens are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (such as smoking, drinking, and sex) and more likely to have positive traits (such as better self-esteem, higher grades, and more sleep).

Nelson works at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Gordon-Larsen is on staff at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Their study appears in Pediatrics.

The researchers encourage teens -- and their parents -- to turn off the TV and get moving.

"I think that parents should find ways to participate in sports and physical activities with their children," Gordon-Larsen says in a news release. "Instead of having family TV time, build in time that the family is together and active."

Wide Range of Activities

Data came from a national survey of adolescent health. Nearly 12,000 youths in grades 7-12 participated in the 1994-1995 survey and in the 1996 follow-up survey.

Participants reported how often they had engaged in various activities in the past week, including playing sports at school or with their families, using neighborhood recreation centers, skating, skateboarding, bicycling, taking physical education (P.E.) classes, watching TV, and playing video games.

Other survey topics included grades, self-esteem, smoking, drinking, and sexual activity. The researchers checked the surveys for clues about teens' physical activity and behavior.

The bottom line: Physically active participants fared better virtually across the board than couch potatoes.

10 Perks of Physical Activity

Compared with participants whose main activities were watching TV and playing video games, those reporting five or more weekly physical activity sessions had 10 advantages:

  • Less likely to have sex, including sex without birth control
  • Less likely to smoke cigarettes
  • Less likely to get drunk frequently or drive while drunk
  • Less likely to use illegal drugs other than marijuana
  • Less likely to be absent from school
  • Less likely to not wear a seatbelt
  • Less likely to have low self-esteem
  • More likely to get 'A' grades in math and science
  • More likely to sleep at least eight hours per night
  • More likely to do housework and have summer jobs outside the home

The researchers don't know if the findings apply to today's teens or if participants' reports were accurate.

Many Choices, Many Benefits

"At this point, we're still trying to understand all of the benefits of being active," Nelson says in the news release. "This research leads us to believe that those benefits extend well beyond physical fitness."

"It could be that active teens are being exposed to more opportunities for team-building, engaging in more social interactions with others, or seeing the benefits of hard work and practice," she says.

No particular physical activity stood out as being best, Nelson notes. "It's not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing," she says.

Nelson's advice: "Helping to provide kids with the opportunity to get involved in any number of physical activities, instead of staying at home and watching TV, may provide a kind of resilience against engaging in these or other risky behaviors."

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SOURCES: Nelson, M. Pediatrics, April 2006; vol 117: pp 1-10. News release, American Academy of Pediatrics.
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