(c) Paha_L www.fotosearch
Why is this teenager smiling?  
Source: (c) Paha_L www.fotosearch

What enables kids in their teenage years to thrive?  No parent wants to see their teenager mired in depression, anger or anxiety.  What helps teens to feel good about themselves? To be regarded as attractive by other teens? To build a foundational sense of well-being?

 A recent paper presented in Bucharest, Romania (April, 2017) at the 13th International Scientific Conference on eLearning and Software for Education focused on disturbing patterns now occurring worldwide among young folks in their teenage years.  The presentation also reported on a particularly clever research method being used in a major study of Romanian and Brazilian teenagers.  

This blog-post reports on the researchers’ hypotheses (based on earlier studies), innovative research technique, and initial findings.

The post then asks four questions to an American teenager to begin to explore if the Romania and Brazil findings apply to teenagers here.  

Ask these four questions to teenagers in your family.  The responses are likely to open helpful dialogue with regard to what is working and what is not in their lives.

Begin by assessing your initial hunches

Two teenagers are sitting in front of you. Billy is plump with soft rounded features and belly fat hanging over his belt. Zeke is fit, lean, muscular and stands tall.

Think of the two boys described above.  Which teenager probably lives a physically healthier lifestyle? Which teenager is likely to feel better about himself? Which teenager will probably be more popular?  Which teen is likely to be building habits that will sustain his  maintenance of a healthy body, and therefore of physical health in general, throughout his lifetime?

What did the Romanian and Brazilian researchers find about the relationship of physical activity to the growth, development and happiness of teenagers in their countries?

If your hunch was that lean, strong Zeke was the correct answer to all the questions above, the Romanian study confirms that your hunch is totally right. Physical activity turned out to be a key secret sauce to teenagers’ success.

Monica STANESCU, Marius STOICESCU from Bucharest, Romania and Lucian Bogdan Bejan of Brazil started with five hypotheses:

1. One significant component of quality of life for many adults is an active lifestyle.

2. During their high school years teenagers benefit from building up physical competences by participating in physical exercise.

3. Nowadays, one of the most alarming aspects of Romanian teenagers’ lifestyles is their ever-increasing tendency to adopt sedentary habits.

4.  As a result, teenagers are showing decreasing cardiovascular fitness and increasing tendencies to become overweight.

5. These tendencies are strongest for teenagers who live in urban, as opposed to rural, areas.

The researchers took a clever approach to engage the study’s subjects.  

To study the impacts of insufficient exercise and sports on teenagers physical, social and emotional health, the researchers gave each participating teenager a Smart Sport Watch with integrated GPS and a heart rate monitor.  The watches measured multiple indicators of physical activity including heart rate, number of steps/day, number of calories, active time, distance.

This innovative research technique enabled the researchers to gather far broader than usual research data, and also to bypass the unreliability of self-reported information.

As you can probably surmise, the research outcomes thus far seem to be confirming all of Stanescu, Stoicescu and Bejan’s hypotheses.  Movement matters.  Exercise and sports on the whole create happier and healthier teens.

How does less or more exercise impact teenagers in the USA?

To explore whether the findings thus in the Romanian/Brazil study apply in the USA, I did a mini-research project.  I asked a teenager who is working this summer as my writing intern to jot down his responses to four questions.  I was curious to know his personal experience with regard to the issues studied in the Romanian/Brazilian research project.  

My intern wrote out his answers and is happy to share them with readers of this post. Here they are:

Question #1: How does exercise you get affect the level of anxiety, stress, and depression in your life?

I have struggled with anxiety since as far back as I can remember. The smallest of challenges would trigger an anxiety attack. Walking a few blocks to school, going on a run around the block with my older brother, taking snowboard lessons, or rallying a tennis ball with my grandpa all gave me butterflies in my stomach.

With all of these activities though, the same fortunate phenomenon occurred. As soon as I got my heart pumping and a small sweat going, I felt like a new person. Miraculously my anxiety from before doing the activity disappeared.

Last year, my family and I moved abroad.  I was constantly stressed out by having to learn a new language and make new friends.

To cope with the stress, everyday after school I would head down to my second home, the municipal squash courts. Squash is a lot like tennis but played on an indoor court. I would whack the ball against the wall for hours to get my shots more consistent. I would run sprints to get more agile.  Every day I did the same routine. Each time by the end of the workout I felt looser, happier, and re-energized.

Now if I miss a few practices, I start feeling down, lazy, negative, antsy, and a little stressed. Exercise clearly keeps my mood positive.

Question #2:  To what extent does your sport boost your overall confidence and self esteem?

As a younger kid as far back as I can remember I often felt unsure of myself. I never pushed myself or tried to prove who I could become, and tended to feel disappointed in who I was. When I started to play squash, everything gradually changed.

At first I used to go to the squash court in long sweatpants and a hat, sometimes even a long sleeve shirt, because I felt so bad about how my body looked.  I dragged my feet when I ran.  My coach and I now joke that I caused a minor earthquake because I was so heavy on my feet. I never played hard in games, and never did sprints. In short, I was a wimp.

My coach didn’t give up on me.  Every day he would motivate me to do my sprints a little faster, hit the ball a little harder, and get a little better.

By now, after four and a half years of playing squash, I am physically much stronger. The stronger I become, the harder I practice. I run harder, get stronger, and have more and more fun.

Getting physically stronger not only has changed my game, but also my life. I now know that I can push myself to the limit, and nothing can stop me. I know if I set a far stretch goal, I will hit it, and that it’s only me who can stop me.

I’ve also learned that after a tough loss I bounce back even stronger.  I rekindle my inner fire with positive energy by thinking about what the match taught me that will make me a better player next time.

Question #3:  Do sports help your school grades or take away from critical learning time?

I always had okay grades in school, never exceptional. In elementary and the start of middle school I kept my head above water, but I never excelled in any subject. I slacked off in school like I did initially in sport.

When I started to train seriously, I saw a huge impact in my grades. Even though I was studying less, and spending more time on the court, my grades skyrocketed.

I have a few ideas of why, but my main philosophy is that excelling in sport has taught me how to focus, be an active learner, and how to review and practice a skill until I have mastered it.

For example, to master backhand drop-shots and to solve quadratic equations I use the same attitude, intensely applying myself to challenges. For analyzing between games what I can do better and solving physics problems I use the same concentration and critical thinking.

The skills that I learned from squash and now use in high school enabled me last semester to get the highest average grades in the class.

Question #4:  What impact, if any, has your exercise had on your social confidence and popularity?

Before I started training, I was an introverted kid. I only had one good friend. I felt reluctant to talk to kids I didn’t know, and never tried to interact with girls.

Talking with my coach, other grownups I played with, and my teammates boosted my courage to initiate conversations. Flying to overseas tournaments, I used my new courage to meet kids from other nations—Austria, Hungary, and my favorites, the Qataris. Using my new comfort level that I learned, I started to talk to more and more kids in school, and started making more and more friends by the day.

I have been happily surprised to find that the more physically fit I get, the more confident I feel, which seems to make more kids at school come over to seek out talking with me.  Now I know a lot of kids.  I have a big base of friends that I feel comfortable hanging out and having fun with.  

So what does the Romanian study, plus the interview with the physically active teenager above, suggest about what helps young people to thrive in their teenage years?

Clearly, sports can have positive impacts on how happy and also how physically healthy teenagers are likely to feel.

I was particularly interested in my intern’s answers about how sports taught him to engage intensely with whatever he was doing.  This quality of ability to engage, according to Harvard’s long-term longitudinal study of its graduates, characterizes one of the keys to successes in adult life.

I was impressed too with my intern’s descriptions of the extent to which confidence in his body enhanced his confidence and competence in emotional, social and even academic arenas.

Not all teens are going to end up becoming so intensely engaged with their sport that they choose to play competitively. That may be a good thing as overly intensely competitive athletics can bring on stresses of their own.  Negative coaching also can prove hurtful.  Fortunately for my intern, he did not face these potential downsides.

In sum...

The findings of the Romanian/Brazilian study strongly suggest that teens definitely can benefit from building frequent and consistent exercise habits. The insights from my writing intern to four questions about the role of sport in his teenage years corroborate the study's findings. 

Moving makes muscle.  Movement makes, as the old ads for milk used to say, "strong bones and a healthy body." A strong and healthy body builds a strong and healthy self-image, an appealing appearance to others, and a positive spirit.

So, teenagers, ready for action? Ready... Set... Thrive!

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(c) Susan Heitler, PhD and Boaz Hirsch

To receive a weekly blogpost from Dr. Heitler click here and look for the pop-up that says Stay Connected.

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Harvard-educated Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler PhD specializes in helping individuals, couples, and families to thrive.  Her blog on this website has garnered over 10 million views. 

To read more about Dr. Heitler’s techniques for ending negative emotions and replacing them with thriving, see her latest book, an engaging read both for teenagers and for adults: Prescriptions Without Pills. 

(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

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