Creating Change for Teen Fitness and Wellness
Erin Lotta, a strength and wellness coach for young women, shares the opportunity health clubs have to create change for teen fitness and wellness.
It’s no secret that being a teenager is difficult, but for teens living through a pandemic, it has become even more challenging for their overall health.
A recent survey of almost 8,000 teens by the CDC reported “37.1% of students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic.” While the need for movement and wellness is apparent for this age group, there is a lack of consistent wellness programming or resources for teens.
Teens are on a journey to find their place in this world and yet they are struggling mentally, emotionally and physically. It’s hard to become an adult and navigate life with feelings of uncertainty internally and lack of skills or tools. Constant exposure to photoshopped images of “perfect skin and bodies” on social media can naturally create comparison, self-judgement and negative feelings about their body.
They see disordered eating and unsustainable diets often at home and glorified on social media. And teens are so over-scheduled and stressed about school and their grades. They don’t always know how to deal with these feelings in a healthy way. It’s not helpful that adults are then surprised teens want to escape on their phones alone in their rooms or use food to cope.
As a personal trainer, I began training two teen girls in the summer of 2020 by request of their parents. I had typically trained moms but I thought OK, why not, I can do that. They showed up every week and never missed for over nine months straight.
We made movement-based goals like doing pull-ups, bench press and back squatting to build self-efficacy. I purposely created an environment around fitness that was the exact opposite of toxic fitness content on social media and in some gym culture. We never talked about their weight or about trying to make their body look a certain way.
We talked about why certain exercises would help their bodies, and the need for rest and recovery. We talked about how good they felt when they were done forging a connection between training and feeling good as a reward. That’s it, and they said it felt like therapy but really we just talked honestly with each other.
The timing is right to create change for this age group but the typical “move more eat less” message is dated and not very effective at forging change. I started creating strength and wellness programming to meet the needs of girls in my local community. This is not weight-loss focused at all, instead it’s focused on healthy habits that are evidence based. I’m unapologetic about the approach. The three main areas I focus on are: movement, nutrition and self-care.
Teens have the opportunity to create a healthier relationship with their body, movement and food compared to generations before them. Movement is easy to accomplish when it’s a tool for better mind and health. If we make movement or workouts about “fixing” their bodies we are just connecting feelings of negativity and shame with exercise.
It’s really hard to do something that affirms your body is not acceptable. Not many people look forward to something that feels bad inside. Regular movement could be more attractive and sustainable if we allowed them to choose the activities they liked, if small increments were acceptable and they connect to a more intrinsic reward.
Create opportunities for movement and community outside of just sports that has nothing to do with aesthetic change but rather about feeling good, sleeping better and learning more efficiently. Teach how these are essential to help with depression, anxiety, stress, ADHD and addiction, and have the potential to create healthier habits as they move into adulthood.
Nutrition is another opportunity for education and finding balance outside of the typical approach of restricting foods and amounts. People who have a healthy relationship with food understand how different foods feel in their body and eat mostly for physical reasons. The goal is to educate about how food works and allow them to trust their own bodies.
Disordered eating is often a result of intentional weight-loss attempts and learning intricate dieting practices. Creating awareness of disordered eating is essential for teens being exposed to practices on social media and real life. A healthy relationship with food is often linked with high levels of self-care. Self-care is the most basic need we have as humans, including getting adequate sleep, meaningful relationships, coping with stress, nutrient-dense foods, regular movement and feeling connected to a larger community.
Four ways to create relevant and helpful teen programs:
Address their needs and make them experts: A self-care approach is needed as a foundation. Give them tools to and resources to help decrease stress, anxiety, sleep better, practice mindfulness, improve fitness and build self-efficacy. Let them make their own decisions about the activities they like and want to incorporate in their daily life to take better care of their bodies. Only they can know how their body feels.
Make it easy: Practice tools for mental and physical together. In my class we practice a five-minute meditation, journaling, gratitude and connecting with their body and how they feel every single class. Each action is small and doable on purpose so they can recreate the habits without feeling overwhelmed. We practice 30 minutes of a strength-based workout that is consistent every week so they know what to expect.
Teach in the grey: Black and white thinking around fitness and nutrition is proven to create turmoil. Teach them the importance of having an overall healthy approach to food that still allows for treats and enjoyment.
Build a community: Create a strong set of values so the group knows how to treat each other and themselves. Teens who don’t participate in sports don’t often have communities to join. I am adamant that my classes know there is no judgement, but instead kindness and curiosity for their peers and also themselves when we meet. Ice breaker games, open discussion and team building experiences like a group hike build community.
Fitness clubs have the opportunity to impact change for teen fitness and wellness that will help them become healthier adults and advocates for mental and physical health in the future. This programming will help their current health and educate them on creating a sustainable approach to fitness, nutrition and mental/emotional well-being, plus the opportunity to create healthier adults that want to use fitness clubs.