The modern adolescent is more overweight and obese now than at anytime before. According to the American Obesity Association about 30.4% of teenagers are overweight and 15.5% are obese. Recent figures published in both Canada and the UK show a similar situation in those countries.
The reasons for this are numerous but the situation is caused by the lifestyle most people choose, particularly the tendency towards fast food and a lack of exercise. Sadly more knowledge about the world around us has served to make us fearful for the safety of our offspring. This means that children and teenagers are kept on a short leash and encouraged to stay indoors so good, healthy outdoor exercise is neglected. Protecting our children thus actually threatens their health.
This problem is exacerbated by the growth of recreational technology that further promotes inactivity and less time in the fresh air. In other cases, parents are less controlling and teenagers are left to make their own decisions, leading to choices made from peer pressure rather than common sense. This means the good healthy and active lifestyle is rejected in favour of a more sugar, fat and alcohol fuelled existence combined with reduced exercise. This is not what the mind and body need for optimum performance.
So what can a concerned parent do?
Teenagers tend to ignore direct instructions or suggestions so effective methods need to be more subtle. Undoubtably the most successful method is to teach them when young. Canny parents get their offspring involved in healthy eating and sport and exercise well before the adolescent years.
One important habit is for the whole family to remove unhealthy foods and drinks from its kitchen shelves.
If sugar laden drinks and fatty foods are no longer easily available then any youngsters are more likely to get ]nto healthy habits too. Having more fruit and vegetables around and creating the habit of drinking water will create an atmosphere where healthy habits seem normal.
Getting a son or daughter involved in the cooking at home really works. A normal child will be curious about foods and how nutrition is used. Make the sessions fun and learning will follow naturally. This means the hard education will be completed before the troublesome teenage years.
Equally children are more likely to get excited about sport at a younger age. The easiest activities tend to be those with a strong perceived image and have a representation in the media. Good examples are martial arts (with their links with movies and comics) and football or soccer (emulation of the skills of famous footballers can do little harm, as long as their private lives are not too turbulent!). The impending Olympic coverage gives parents the ideal opportunity to get children excited about sport.
Even if you are a parent and have not managed to interest your child in sport and exercise before adolescence it is never too late. If an activity can be seen as 'cool' or adventurous then a teenager will still be attracted to it. The important thing is to put your offspring in contact with activities that would help them lead a healthy lifestyle.
School sports are often a great way to find something in which a child might be interested. Equally doing something as a family might trigger the enthusiasm for which you work. It is certainly true that many teenage boys and girls respond to peer pressure so it would make sense for a smart parent to steer their child towards those who would provide a positive environment in a sport or activity.
Football, or soccer, tennis, cricket, athletics, Rugby or cricket clubs would provide just the right mix of enjoyment, activity, social interaction and positive influence a growing person needs. Even joining a gym would help. Often the experience is enhanced if a group of friends the same age join an appropriate organization.
Following criticism as one reason why children get little exercise, computer game companies are now responding to the need for exercise. Nintendo are the best example, producing their Wii system with the ability to play various sports by replicating the actions of the players. A wide range of activities are now represented and can be great fun for the whole family. Other computer game manufacturers have produced active games too.
Among the most popular are those where the player follows dance steps or even create their own. Obviously dancing is an excellent way to exercise and appeals to teenagers in particular.
But by far the best activities for health are those that take place outside in the fresh air. There are many activities available as part of a family activity, with a club or an organization such as the Scouts, Guides or one of the cadet forces. Mountain biking is a relatively new sport that has gained great popularity but other activities that may attract adolescents include adventure camping, hillwalking, hiking, sailing or scuba diving.
There are other benefits to outdoor sports, other than the healthy exercise it gives. Learning and experiencing a new activity will give a group of youngsters a shared experience and bind them as a group. New friends will always be made and social skills are developed.
My own experience includes hillwalking and I have seen young people arrive to an expedition shy and often with social challenges and depart at the end with new found skills and confidence. Indeed some legal bodies are experimenting with schemes to encourage problem teenagers to try outdoor activities, especially walking expeditions and yacht sailing. Putting such youngsters under mental and physical stress to achieve a shared goal means they often lose the negative influences and energies that get them into trouble.
Organized sports are not the only way to get your teenager active however. Other interests can involve healthy activity. Quite a few television programmes get people interested in gardening for example and it is possible for youngsters to get interested in horticulture by watching a parent or grandparent working in the garden, especially if encouraged to help out. In any case, a busy adolescent will be more physically active and less likely to lounge around being lazy! The skill is to get them interested and broaden their minds and their body will follow.
It may seem impossible at times to get a youngster interested in healthy habits but the right approach early enough can provide dividends throughout the rest of his or her life. There is no doubt it is worth the effort.