Run For Your Mind: The Significance of Exercise For Teens
By Richard Thompson, DO Pediatric Resident at The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical SchoolMember, Texas Medical Association Whether it’s from cardio, weight lifting, or simply having fun playing a favorite sport, doctors recommend all teenagers get at least 60 minutes of exercise every day. However, the reality is only 27% of high school students reported getting the recommended amount of physical activity every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).Most of this exercise should be aerobic in nature, like long-distance running, jogging, walking, biking, or swimming. At least three days of the week should be spent on strengthening muscles and bones, achieved through resistance/weight-bearing exercises such as squats, push-ups, or sit-ups.Why run at all?You may be wondering why experts recommend so much aerobic exercise. Besides helping us look and feel great, cardio activities offer a number of benefits. No one denies that a quick jog can easily release the stress built up after a long day at school. But according to research, there are even deeper reasons why exercising – particularly running – can benefit our overall mental health, not just our physical well-being.Running improves thinking skills by boosting certain proteins in our brains. These proteins can even improve memory.Running preserves brains and prevents diseases later on in life, like Alzheimer’s.Running reduces depression and anxiety, and has been shown to be just as helpful as taking certain medications.Running helps people recover from addiction from things like alcohol, drugs, and smoking.Running even has been shown to boost creativity.How do I start? Starting any exercise regimen is far from easy. Step one is to identify a barrier. Consider all the possible hurdles that keep people from exercising on a regular basis, such as:Busy schedules – due to school, work, home responsibilities, or other extracurricular activities;Lack of access to trails, parks, or gyms in the community; andThe belief that all forms of exercise are unenjoyable.After pinpointing your reason(s) behind not exercising, make a plan. The Community Preventive Services Task Force offers several simple strategies. First, set an achievable goal. An example is to sign up for a short race – try starting with a 5K or 10K distance. Then train with that goal in mind; start shorter jogs and runs and increase your run distance/duration over time. Another strategy can be to join or build a community around physical fitness, whether it’s enrolling in a club sport or finding people around you with similar schedules to train alongside you. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly – reward yourself! After finishing that first 5K, give yourself a few days off.My personal take as a running enthusiast is to first discover an activity you love. I’ll be the first to admit that running is not for everyone. However, cardio can be accomplished in a wide variety of settings such as yoga, cross-fit, swimming, or biking. If you’re starting at ground zero, try several options and choose whichever kind of exercise you prefer. You are much more likely to make a habit out of doing something you love. Once you find that activity, carve out a specific time of the day to do it, and stick with it. You might be surprised to find improvements not only in your physical fitness but also in your mental health.Why is this so important for teenagers?Doctors recommend all teenagers get at least 60 minutes of exercise each day because it can benefit both physical and mental health.Many teens may read this and think, “I’m too young to worry about exercising,” or “I have plenty of time in my life to think about keeping in shape later, when my metabolism slows down.” However, the most important reason why teens should exercise is to proactively prevent health complications in the future – to ultimately prolong their life span. When teens enter puberty, they not only begin to experience physical changes but also significant mental ones. Teens begin to develop an independent mind as they discover their own interests and plan for the future beyond high school. Because of this, teens are especially at risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.Exercising, even if it is just an hour per day, can make all the difference in setting teens up for a healthier life today and a healthier future, while also helping to protect them from mental illness.
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