Teen Fitness: Why Start Early?
Being a teenager is no easy feat. Set aside the question of raging hormones. Teenagers have to negotiate family and friendships, perform at school, complete homework, participate in extracurricular activities and work a job*—all the while struggling to figure out one’s own identity. It is a veritable minefield. If the situation isn’t challenging enough, it’s now well known that brain development continues well into the mid-twenties. Given this state of affairs, teenagers in many ways have to navigate complex situations all the while operating at a disadvantage. As Matthew Walker, a leading professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley states, “adolescents have a less rational version of an adult brain, one that takes more risks and has relatively poor decision-making skills” (2017, 89).
*Despite the affluent and particular conditions in Hong Kong that allow for most teenagers to concentrate exclusively on school work, elsewhere around the world many teenagers take on employment whether it be a summer job or during the academic year. These jobs tend to concentrate in the low-wage service sector like retail services, clerical work and blue-collar jobs.
However, in saying the above the point isn’t to paint a dire picture of things. What we’re talking about is the subject of maturation and how best to cope with it. Teenagers are traversing murky waters— experiencing biological, environmental and social changes— in order to get to the other side and become full-fledged adults. Recognizing reality, instead of burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich, means that we need to find ways to set teenagers up for success.
One such method is exercise. Many parents adopt this strategy when they enrol their kids, pre-teens, into afterschool sports. The thinking behind this approach is to give kids the time and opportunity to explore sports, so that they can find something that they simply enjoy doing, which in turn will encourage them to continue to pursue the chosen sport. In doing so, kids learn to develop good habits and skills and socialize with others. These skills can then be translated to other areas of their lives. Educational systems worldwide recognize this fact that is why they include physical education (PE) in the general curriculum. PE, however, is often dropped when students have more autonomy with respect to course selection later on. With PE no longer being compulsory the knock-on effect is that teenagers are less likely to do physical exercise. Without consistent training those skills that they learnt early on can atrophy and fall to the wayside.
"untrained youth can improve their strength by an average of 30% to 40% after eight weeks of consistent resistance training"
Teenagers, therefore, have to be proactive when it comes to their own personal fitness. In particular, resistance training can be very beneficial for teenagers. Resistance training (also known as weight training or strength training) is any exercise that causes the muscles to contract against external resistance (be it plate, barbell or body weight) with the aim of building strength and endurance. There are significant benefits associated with resistance training. First, resistance training increases blood flow that helps cycle antibodies throughout the body faster, thereby boosting the immune system. A robust immune system is vital for overall health and well-being.
Second, when compared to more popular sports like basketball, soccer, and other contact sports like rugby and American football, resistance training results in lower risk of injury. Injuries associated with resistance training are typically sprains and strains due to poor form and technique, inappropriate weight selection and lack of qualified supervision (2009, S61-S63). Third, because the skeletal system is still developing during teenage years, resistance training is particularly effective. Taxing the body with lower weight selection and more repetitions gives the teenage body the chance to progress at a steady incremental pace gaining significant levels of strength and improving bone density beyond those associated with normal growth and development. A recent analysis of sports literature suggests that untrained youth can improve their strength by an average of 30% to 40% after eight weeks of consistent resistance training (2009, S63-S64). In addition, resistance training has been linked to improvement in motor skills and body composition.
"Injuries associated with resistance training are typically sprains and strains due to poor form and technique, inappropriate weight selection and lack of qualified supervision"
What is more, regular resistance training has concomitant psychosocial benefits (2009, S66-S67). Steady training establishes a healthy body image that contributes to overall self-esteem. Most of all, training with others, making new friends, provides a teenager with another social support group independent of existing ones. We don’t talk to each and every person we know about our problems and solicit their take on what troubles us. Instead, we approach people on the basis of how comfortable we feel around them and whether or not we think they are up to the task of offering some meaningful advice. Having more people in your corner, those who you have struggled with in physical challenges, furnishes one with the knowledge that you have a well-balanced support system to avail yourself of when the time comes. This knowledge is a salve against anxiety when confronted by unfamiliar or awkward situations; you can feel more confident going into these situations because you know you are equipped with more tools and people to help you out.
In short, resistance training has many benefits that set a teenager up for future success. Indeed, if humans are going to have any chance at our continued existence it is only by investing in our youth, so that they have the skills and tools to do better than their forebears. We are biological organisms and we thrive when we engage in physical activity. Resistance training with peers gives a teenager a real prospect at that pursuit.
Faigenbaum AD, Kraemer WJ, Blimkie CJ et al. 2009. “Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper from the National Strength and Conditions Association.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23, S5 (August): S60-S79.
Walker, Matthew. 2017. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. New York:Scribner.