What Happens if Teenagers Don’t Get Enough Exercise?

Teenagers frequently hear encouragement to increase their physical activity. They also receive counsel to make time for better sleep, study more, spend time with family, serve others, eat healthy meals and even create space for enjoyable hobbies and relaxation. All these recommendations can seem like a lot for a teenager to balance appropriately. Some teens may find it difficult to fit in exercise among everything else they want or need to fit into their lives. This perceived inability to find time for physical activity can lead to the question, what happens if teenagers don’t get enough exercise?

Consistent physical activity improves sleep and daily performance. Exercise also increases bone, muscle and heart health, reduces the risk for a host of diseases, and supports good mental health. A chronic lack of physical activity will cause teens to miss out on many important health benefits.

Research backs a host of benefits that come from consistent physical activity. While skipping a day of exercise will not derail a teenager’s health, teens who rarely exercise will decrease current and future quality of life.

The undisputed importance of physical activity for overall well-being, make it an important aspect of a healthy teen’s lifestyle. Continue reading for more information on physical activity recommendations and ideas for incorporating it into the life of an adolescent.

What are the physical activity recommendations for teenagers?

The CDC recommends teenagers engage in sixty minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. This recommendation may seem overwhelming if a teen does not understand the recommendation. 

First, these sixty minutes do not need to happen all at once but can occur throughout the day. Research shows multiple ten-minute periods of movement throughout the day provide similar benefits to sixty minutes all at once.

Furthermore, running, cycling and weightlifting are not the only options. Physical activities also include walking, outdoor chores, jump rope, skating, hiking and many other hobbies teens enjoy. Even some household chores like sweeping can bring benefits.

Aerobic activities should account for most of a teenager’s physical activity. These activities strengthen the heart and lungs. Examples include running, walking, cycling, swimming, dancing and jumping.

Teenagers will also want to participate in bone and muscle strengthening activities for at least three of the days. Exercises such as running, jumping, sports, climbing and lifting objects or body weight strengthen the bones and muscles.

Some physical activities involve more than one group, which makes following these recommendations easier than they may originally appear. For example, jumping rope is aerobic, and strengthens both muscle and bones. The same can also be said of running and playing sports. 

Adolescents should find ways to move that fit their unique needs and preferences. The best form of physical activity is the one adolescents prefer and will do consistently.

What are the benefits of physical activity?

Studies demonstrate countless benefits of daily physical activity. These benefits range from increased self-confidence to increasing life quality and expectancy. The following list names only some of the abundant positive outcomes from physical activity.

  • Reduced risk of chronic diseases: 
    • Obesity 
    • Heart disease
    • Type two diabetes
  • Improved overall health
  • Increased heart health
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Higher bone density
  • Stronger muscles 
  • Improved cognition
  • Better academic performance 
  • Improved memory
  • Decreased risk of depression
  • Increased self confidence

Making daily physical activity a habit can feel frustrating at times when the benefits don’t appear right away. However, with time and effort, those benefits are realized. In fact, teens may eventually find themselves looking forward to their exercise sessions as they continue to see improvements in health and well-being.

What are some tips to increasing physical activity?

  1. Listen to your body and increase gradually

Going from 0 to 100 is an easy recipe for burnout. Increasing activity too much, too fast causes muscle soreness, fatigue and injuries. Choose small goals and then work up from those goals. 

For example, making a goal to do 50 pushups and run three miles every day, when the current physical activity is walking between classes, will rarely lead to successful completion of that goal. Instead, start with a goal of 5 push-ups with 10 minutes of running and walking. When that goal is successful, then increase the intensity or length.

  1. Be kind to yourself

So, you miss a day in your usual physical activity routine or you fail to meet a performance goal. That’s okay! Progress isn’t always linear with exercise. Simply start up again the next day. 

The all or nothing mentality rarely works to meet goals. This mentality means a teen who fails at one thing, gives up on everything else. Instead, a teen can take a failure or mistake, build on it, and ultimately move on.

On days when time does not permit a full session, use the time you have and add movement in throughout the day.

  • Walk instead of drive
  • Take the stairs
  • Cycle while studying
  • Take 10 minutes at lunch to incorporate movement
  • Choose an activity over sitting with friends
  • Stretch in a seat
  • Help with home chores
  • Walk the dog 
  1. Find what you enjoy

Enjoyment plays a significant role in the ability to maintain a habit. If a teenager detests running and chooses that as the way to increase physical activity, motivation will deteriorate rapidly. Find an enjoyable way to increase activity to make the habit sustainable. 

  1. Stay adequately hydrated

Even slight dehydration can negatively impact physical and cognitive performance. Drink fluids throughout the day. Drinking too much fluid all at once can cause electrolyte imbalances and gut distress. 

Urine color best indicates hydration status and should be a pale yellow. Try to rehydrate as soon as possible following a workout and drink fluid before exercising as well. 

The best fluids for hydration do not contain added sugars. Water, milk, unsweetened plant-based milks and occasionally 100% juice are good options. Sports drinks are only needed for workouts lasting longer than an hour and with heavy sweating.

  1. Make time for recovery

Recovery days involving less intense activities should follow high level workouts. Always going hard does not allow the body to repair and build, ultimately sabotaging performance goals. With muscle building, avoid working the same muscle group on back to back days for the same reason. 

Some teenagers will try to exercise through sickness, injuries and other conditions of poor health. It is best to allow the body time to heal. Always going hard will negatively impact health. 

Teens should listen to their bodies. As mentioned previously, one or even a few days will minimally impact performance.

  1. Prioritize sleep

Sleep remains the most crucial recovery session. Inadequate or poor sleep not only decreases motivation to move, but also increases likelihood of fatigue, injury, sickness and burnout. 

Teens need 8-10 hours per day and should go to sleep and wake at similar times for the best quality of sleep.

Take home tip

Overall, try to introduce physical activity in a sustainable and enjoyable manner for long lasting effectiveness. 

Should I change my eating habits if I start exercising more regularly?

An increase in energy expenditure through additional physical activity, may increase the need for more calories. However, individuals often overcompensate with food as a reward. Listening to hunger and fullness cues, instead of counting calories, will best meet energy needs.

Eating a well-balanced meal pattern will ensure the body also receives adequate nutrition for recovery and building of body tissue. A teen should try to include more nutrient dense foods at eating occasions such as fruits, vegetables, lean meat, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and dairy.

Teens should look to eat less of foods high in saturated fats, sugars and sodium. High consumption of these foods is associated with poorer health outcomes. They can also negatively affect exercise performance. 

However, all foods can still be part of a healthy diet. Teenagers should look to increase nutrient dense foods while still enjoying the lower nutrient dense foods in moderation. 

Severe restriction of calories or certain foods can lead to disordered eating and binging. 

If a teen feels concerned about their eating habits, reach out to a doctor or registered dietitian for guidance. Social media, family and influencers, while often good intentioned, do not always provide accurate nutrition information.

In summary

The current physical activity recommendations for teens were developed based on research and science to best support the health of a growing teenager. 

Adolescents should find a way to meet these recommendations through sustainable measures. Make realistic goals and try new ways to incorporate movement into the day. Also, listen to the body and respond appropriately. 

Taking the challenge to include daily physical activity in the day will increase the quality of almost all aspects of a teenager’s life.

Katherine Harmer, RDN

I'm a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a love for coaching others to success in their health goals, especially teenage athletes. Tennis was my sport of choice in high school. Now I'm a little bit older, a little bit smarter, and a little bit worse at tennis.

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