Our adolescents are passive and inactive and we can’t just blame screens 

We grown-ups know that eating well, sleeping well and exercising well are the three key ingredients to being healthy – physically and mentally.

Well, what the heck is happening for adolescents aged 11-17? Not much according to a World Health Organization study recently published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal, that discovered that 85% of girls and 78% of boys are not meeting the current recommendation of at least one hour of physical activity per day. The authors of the study used data reported by 1.6 million students ages 11-17. This is a statistically large study and one that has been conducted over a number of years.

Australian adolescents ranked as one of the worst performers. Current recommendations suggest that young people aged 11-17 should be getting an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. 89% of young Australians and New Zealanders did not meet this recommendation.

Why we can’t just blame screens…

Okay so if you were like me, you would have just assumed that these awful figures for Australian adolescents are due to the increased usage of screen time.

Well I thought I would check with Associate Professor Rebecca Braham, a University of Western Australia researcher who looks into physical activity and health promotion. She said these figures showing trends of insufficient physical activity “had remained high and relatively stable over a 15 year period.”

So we can’t blame screens because 15 years ago we didn’t have smart phones, iPads, tablets or handheld devices! It is concerning to see that the number of girls in the study who are getting insufficient exercise has increased rather than stayed relatively stable as the number of boys has.

I have been very concerned about the increased passivity in early years and primary age children, and now have realised that I need to be worried about all children!

So if we remove technology as one of the contributing factors – remember this has been happening for 15 years – what the heck is keeping our adolescents so inactive?

So why is this happening?

My thoughts are that we have created an incredibly fear-based culture around play, especially outdoor and adventuresome play in our neighbourhoods, communities and schools. Well-meaning parents are keeping their children safe in their homes and in their backyards – which have also shrunk over the last 20 years.

Parents are time poor and with higher percentages of families in which both parents work, the opportunity to create time for physical activity, outdoor play, a trip to the beach or even walking the dog have all been stolen from the lives of families. Early habits flow into the habits of adolescence and ultimately into adulthood.

Organised sport has become too expensive for many parents, and for some it’s far too focused on competition, rather than fun. Many boys and girls drop out of organised sport as they head into high school. Other extracurricular activities can also be too expensive for many families.

Sometimes solutions to overcome challenges can be incredibly simple. The very intention to prioritise one hour of physical activity every day for your kids, is where you start.

Walking or riding to middle and high school is a seriously great place to start.

This may be the perfect excuse to get a dog – if there’s one thing that will get families moving, it is a dog.

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Planning with your family for fun, physical activity on the weekends is another way to get the hours of movement up. To be honest adult modelling has a lot to do with the habits that your children will adopt and take into adulthood. Yes it does take more effort to pack up the family, and head out for some fresh air and some physical fun. Yes it is easier to hand them a device and have them sit on the couch so you can finish your cup of tea or coffee and have a chance to check your own phones.

The struggle is real however, holding a specific intention to meet one hour of physical activity every day is doable.

How schools can help…

Schools need to have conversations about how they can improve these awful statistics. So let me explore some of the fabulous ideas that people in my Facebook village shared about what is already happening in some awesome middle schools and high schools. I think this is an opportunity for parents to help fundraise for some of these great ideas, so that they become a reality in our schools.

  1. Create teenage playgrounds – where students can play handball, basketball, soccer, do dance or other exercise opportunities.
  2. If the school has a pool – open it for lap swimming or aqua aerobics.
  3. Build bike tracks and skate tracks around the edges of high schools.
  4. Put in a climbing wall that is accessible during the breaks.
  5. Table tennis tables.
  6. Give them a grown-up nature play area where they can build cubbies and dens.
  7. Create a ‘Ninja Warrior’ equipment site.
  8. Volleyball.
  9. Outdoor obstacle courses.
  10. Hip-hop dancing program.
  11. Zumba.
  12. High ropes course.
  13. CounterPunch – this is a physical medium of boxing that has been shown to be very beneficial at lifting fitness and wellbeing.
  14. Have tennis tournaments.
  15. Create bootcamp style obstacle courses.
  16. Before school running group.
  17. Have silent discos at lunchtime.
  18. Ultimate Frisbee.
  19. Tug-o-wars.
  20. Geo-caching or rogaining.

These activities are varied and students can help organise them. It will not only build their physical competence and wellbeing, it will help build social cohesion making the school environment a safer place to be.

I have fond memories as a teacher of playing basketball with some of my middle school boys at lunchtimes 40 years ago. The part I remember the most was the laughter – hopefully it was good for our heart health as well as our souls.

Getting our adolescents to be more physically active needs to become a priority for families, schools and communities.

The physical health benefits are enormous however, I believe it is the psychological and mental health benefits that are equally as important.

A significant number of today’s adolescents are struggling with anxiety and a lack of enthusiasm for the future. Maybe creating some fun opportunities in our schools might be exactly what our teens need – some serious fun and laughter in our chaotic, always changing and uncertain world.

As I finish this blog, I can hear my neighbour’s 15-year-old son shooting hoops at the basketball backboard I have on my shed. Now that I’m on holidays, I might go join him because we grown-ups can benefit from physical activity and having fun too!