Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

Unless enrolled in some school or outside athletic program, it’s harder for many adolescents to choose physical exercise today because the electric competition for how to spend one’s down time has become so great in the Internet Age.

Now there is this standing, open invitation to escape into online entertainment by indulging in something easy rather than engaging with an offline activity as demanding as exercise.

Offering pleasure with little effort, the internet choice can often trump the exercise option.

Of course, it’s reasonable for parents to tell their teenager, who would otherwise remain forever holed up in front of his computer, that every 50 minutes he has to take a 10 minute break, get outside, and walk around the block. This is not motivated exercise, but directed exercise intended to put a young body into minimal motion.

If parents want to motivate their adolescent to exercise, they need to appreciate the arguments against exercise they may be up against. Consider just a few.

“Working out is work, and I’m tired of working.”

“Having to exercise just tells me I don’t look okay the way I am.”

“Exercise is only good if you keep it up; and I don’t want to do that.”

“I’ve got more enjoyable things to do with my free time.”

“I’m never going to look like a celebrity, so why try?”

This last objection reflects the tyranny of media ideals at this self-critical age, offering a constant parade of youthful physical perfection with which few teenagers can measure up, and so decline to try.

Occasionally parents will try to force exercise by setting conditions (“Before we do what you want, you have to do some exercise”) or by offering rewards (“We’ll pay you each time you work out”), but at most both strategies only apply external motivation and risk turning exercise into one more contentious issue.  Getting into a struggle over exercise with an adolescent is as pointless as getting into a conflict over what foods parents want the teenager to eat. It’s usually a losing proposition.

The adolescent draws a line of responsibility: “It’s my body to control, not yours!” Exactly! And this is where parents are at a choice point. They can assert pressure and risk pushing the teenager into an “I won’t” position, or they can appeal to self-interest and maybe encourage the young person into an “I want” position. In most cases, for a teenager to regularly exercise, she or he must be internally motivated — treating it as a matter of personal choice, preference, and responsibility.

Of course, the very concept of exercise can be offensive to an adolescent. It has a bad reputation like dieting — one of those things most young people think they could or should do more of to be better off, but basically find unappealing since you have to do more in the first instance and do without in the second. “It would take a lot to stick to a diet and start an exercise routine!”

So for openers, it’s probably not a good idea to wed dieting and exercise, because the first regimen can weigh down the second. Better to uncouple the two and just encourage exercise. (If exercise takes hold, a decision to change eating behavior may often follow.) And rather than endorse the extrinsic goal of “looking better” from exercise so others will notice, support an intrinsic one: “feeling better” from having taken some physical care of one’s body.      

The experience of exercise can appeal to adolescent self-interest in many ways.

At an age when it’s easy to feel at the mercy of forces one does not command, exercise can feel empowering because it is about how the young person can control how to treat themselves to positive effect — unwinding, conditioning, strengthening, and shaping their body. Exercise is an investment of personal effort that can yield positive personal returns. Exercise can put the adolescent in charge.

Parents can help contextualize exercise, because the context can either encourage or discourage the desire to exercise. So ask a few questions to help the young person focus on the condition and setting that might work best. For example, would she or he rather exercise be: social or solitary, indoors or outdoors, lead or self-directed, team or individual, private or public, media-accompanied or silent, relaxed or challenging, competitive or noncompetitive, goal-focused or goal-free? So the adolescent explains: "I can't workout inside or outside without my smartphone for company."

Why exercise? Parents can simply explain that it can boost physical wellness and felt wellbeing and so they are encouraging giving it a try. Particularly when their teenager has been feeling down in the dumps or bored or otherwise discouraged, exercise can have emotional benefits. It can feel purposeful and uplifting. Since not every kind of exercise feels good or fits everyone, it can take some trying out different kinds, experimentation which parents can offer to support, with no commitment on the part of the teenager to continue any one.  Remember, around exercise, a light touch works better than a heavy hand. 

Probably the best encouragement parents can offer is by example, explaining the benefits and pleasure exercise provides for them. “Some days it takes pushing myself out the door to get started, but afterwards I always feel better after having put my body in motion. It’s a great way to begin, interrupt, or end my day.”

When you model how exercise doesn't have to be uncomfortable, painful, or exhausting, but can be relaxing, renewing, and even enjoyable, that lesson can take. You can explain how a person doesn't have to be athletic to exercise. All it takes is physically moving one's body. 

And of course, parents can always issue an invitation: “Why don’t you come along with me to gym today?  You could just play around on some of the machines.”  Or: “Feel like coming out on my evening walk with me?” Keep that inclusive initiative up, apply no pressure, and take no sense of rejection when refused. Just bide your time while continuing your offers. At some time, for whatever reason, the young person may have nothing better to do and will feel inclined to accept. 

If your teenager decides to put her or himself on some kind of self-administered exercise program, suggest they start with a very short time limit. “For the first week, see if you can stick to no more than 10 minutes every other day.” Building up slowly is better than taking on too much at the outset. Also, typically, the young person often starts buying in, adding a bit more exercise time on their own. In support, parents can say and mean: “Whatever amount you feel like doing is enough because any exertion is all to the good. It's like investing effort in wellness, treating yourself like you're worth the expense.”

Parents can motivate by their example, explaining personal benefit, offering encouragement, inviting to join, providing support, and giving congratulations when exercise is accomplished.

And should an exercise pattern become established, point out to the young person that they are developing something far more powerful than physical conditioning. Call it  “self-discipline” — the capacity to create and maintain a self-management habit that supports a healthy quality of life. 

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE, Wiley, 2013. Information at; www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: The Story of Adolescence

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