5 Ways to Help Unfit Teens Get Moving

Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on September 22, 2021

No teen is doomed to be overweight. A 2010 European study showed that even teenagers with gene-linked obesity are able to overcome it by exercising for 60 minutes a day. For the teens in the study who exercised regularly, it paid off in lower body fat, a lower body mass index (BMI), and a smaller waist.

But an hour of exercise a day can seem like a lot. If your overweight teenager is not physically active or is self-conscious about their body, it may feel overwhelming.

That's where you, the parent, come in. You can help your teen get moving and work up to 60 minutes of exercise a day. The key is to start off small and provide plenty of role modeling and support along the way.

Here are five tips to help you help your teen ease into exercise and stay motivated so that they can feel the benefits.

Teen Fitness Tip 1: Build Slowly

Kids who aren't used to exercising may only be willing to tolerate a little physical activity before wanting to quit. So start with small steps, such as a 10-minute walk every day after school. If the thought of exercising every day seems overwhelming to them, start off with walking every other day. Add a minute more of walking each time, and have them track their progress.

Setting small goals like this is important with kids. Seeing the minutes add up can help boost their motivation. You might also set up a contract with them that offers rewards for racking up more minutes.

Little successes will also build your child's self-confidence and encourage them to make exercise a part of their life. Praise and encourage them for any positive steps they take toward being healthier.

Teen Fitness Tip 2: Make Screen Time Count

All the time your teen spends in front of a TV or computer is time they are not being active. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day of watching TV or playing video or computer games. So work together to set house rules on screen time.

And when your family does spend time in front of the screen, try these things:

Build in a little exercise. See who can do the most push-ups or leg lifts during commercial breaks, or schedule activity breaks from gaming.

Be a role model. Even if your teen is reluctant to hit the floor during TV time, they will notice if you do. Routinely do some crunches or other exercises while watching TV. Or keep small dumbbells and elastic bands in a box next to the TV to use during commercials or shows. This fitness-oriented approach to TV time may motivate them to follow.

Teen Fitness Tip 3: Make Workouts Enjoyable

The best exercise program is the one your teen will actually do. Does your son like nature and animals? Check out local outdoor clubs or organizations that sponsor outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, and bird watching. If your daughter likes martial arts, dancing, or gymnastics, look for classes that would interest them at your local YMCA, school, church, or community center. Even activities such as drama can get teens out of their chairs and off their beds.

Remember, any movement away from sitting counts. That includes chores inside and outside the house. Schedule a cleaning hour or enlist your teen's help in pulling weeds, trimming bushes, or doing volunteer cleanup at a local park.

Teen Fitness Tip 4: Consider Weight Training

Strength training, or resistance training, may be a good activity for teens who are not yet used to aerobic exercise. A 2009 study showed that doing resistance exercises three days a week can significantly lower body fat and increase muscle, strength, and power in obese children.

It's not necessary to join a gym to do strength training. Your child can do push-ups and crunches, lift weights, or do exercises with resistance bands at home for little or no cost. Just be sure to talk with their doctor before your teen starts a strength training regimen.


Teen Fitness Tip 5: Encourage Participation in Sports

If your teen enjoys watching sports, they may enjoy playing them just as much. Overweight teens may benefit from joining a sports team that is grouped by skill instead of age. If your teen dislikes or is uncomfortable with the idea of competitive sports, encourage a sport such as cycling or running.

And it's a good idea to talk with the coach to get a feel for their style. A good match can mean a win-win situation for everyone.

In the end, remember that developing an active and healthy lifestyle is not a race. Your teen is more likely to get there by taking it one doable step at a time. As a parent, your example and encouragement can help them do that.

Show Sources

Ruiz, J. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, April 2010.

Spear, B. Pediatrics, December 2007.

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Tips to Reduce Screen Time."

Women's "Body Works: A Toolkit for Teens and Strong Families."

American Heart Association: "Tips for Raising Heart-Healthy, Active Children."

McGuigan, M. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, January 2009.

American Academy of Pediatrics: "Policy Statement: Strength Training by Children and Adolescents.", American Academy of Pediatrics: "Physical Activity: Make the Right Choice for Your Child;" "Encouraging Your Child to be Physically Active;" "Making Fitness A Way of Life;" and "Physical Activity = Better Health."

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