Home » How (not?) to motivate a teenage girl to be active. Lessons from an active father.

How (not?) to motivate a teenage girl to be active. Lessons from an active father.

I’m going to state the obvious: being the father of a teenage girl isn’t easy. I’m just in the early stages when the eye-rolling starts to develop, which comes before the door-slamming phase (I’m already adding foam stoppers to all doors). I’ve heard there isn’t just one type of teenage eye-roll but numerous ones that have different meanings. Good luck trying to sort that out.

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I think I’ve been navigating it fairly well so far. We see eye-to-eye a lot of times but the one area we commonly have arguments about is on physical activity. This generally occurs during school holidays when there are no planned activities, and she isn’t walking to and from school. There’s my daughter, in the middle of the afternoon, still in her pajamas, phone in hand with her hair looking like a home built by crows.

I’ll admit, part of the arguments are my fault; my anxiety can get the best of me. Exercise and being active is a big part of my life. I did my undergrad degree in kinesiology and my graduate degree in cardiac rehabilitation. I even had dreams of being a professional triathlete. Each day I try to get in some form of exercise to get my heart rate up and target 5000 to 10 000 steps.

With that background, I was certain that I was going to have active kids. Or rather, my biggest fear was having children, or a child, who sat on the couch and had no passion (and no, having a passion for video games doesn’t count).

I knew all about setting the foundations to encourage activity in children and that it starts with the parents being active themselves; active parents are more likely to have active children.

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Perhaps it’s knowing too much that gets me worried. The World Health Organization recommends that children get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day. This is activity that increases one’s heart rate and breathing. Kids are also born active and, left to their own devices, will be active, yet only about a third of kids are meeting this target whether in Canada or the United States or elsewhere. On top of that, girls are less active than boys.

There are a lot of benefits to being active as I’ve touched on in earlier blogs, and there are a number of ones that are particular to children. Being active gets kids outside and can help support personal growth. Participating in physical activity is associated with improved confidence in both children and teenagers, as well as better academic performance, likely due to improvements in brain function. Being active as a child is also associated with being more active as an adult.

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Participating in organized sports is often suggested as a way to increase activity in kids and it also provides opportunities for social engagement. That being said, competitive activities may not be desirable for all children and kids with low self-confidence may purposely avoid these activities. It’s also not the only way for kids to be active. My daughter gets a lot of social interaction from her dance classes, and in some organized sports, kids spend more time standing around than they would if they were out playing on their own.

The early teenage years for girls is a time with the greatest decline in physical activity. This coincides with when girls start to really become interested in their appearance. It could be as simple as not wanting to wear a bike helmet because it messes up their hair, or more meaningful like girls being conscious of their body shape and not feeling comfortable in gym/athletic wear.

Particular to girls, is the role that regular activity has in healthy bone development and preventing osteoporosis later in life. During the teen years is when bone development is at its greatest and regular physical activity can increase bone density and therefore strength. How active a woman was during her teen years may determine risk for osteoporosis. Now, of course, what teenaged girl is going to be motivated to be active so they don’t’ get a disease in their 50’s? Not many I’m sure.

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So what works and what doesn’t?

With boys, in general, their interests in activity stem from the pure physical aspect of it, the competitiveness and desire to win. In girls, it’s much different. There’s a much greater emphasis on enjoyment of the social aspects, being with their friends and peer supports. If girls can’t chat and catch up with one another during practices they’re not going to want to go. This doesn’t mean that girls don’t listen, in fact, at the risk of offending all of my male compatriots, I would say that girls (and women) are much better listeners (women around the world are all nodding in agreement at this point).

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Girls also want to see other girls and women being active. While there are plenty of sports on TV, hardly any of them include women. Watching boys and men be active, and doing sports doesn’t encourage girls to be active. We all like to have role models we can identify with and so do girls. To this end, I make an effort to watch and attend activities where women are prominent. If you live near a university, this provides a wide range of activities to watch at a low cost. I even found that having my daughter meet the athletes can provide encouragement itself.

Probably the most important thing, though, is to be supportive and encouraging as parents. This doesn’t always work as at times we can be our own worst enemies. Comments from parents, peers and coaches that focus on body image and competence reduce the enjoyment for girls and can lead to less activity. I see this between my own kids; my son is more than happy to talk about his latest basketball game and get feedback, but my daughter isn’t. She’s happy to play the game and move on. It’s not easy for a parent to stay silent but sometimes we just have to shut our mouths.

So as I learn to navigate the ins and outs of having a teenage daughter, I hope to instill in her lifelong exercise habits, finding the right balance between encouraging and letting her discover the benefits on her own. To me, this is no different than supporting other positive habits like brushing one’s teeth, being respectful and having a good work ethic. If you have any experiences to share, please feel free to put them in the comment box below.

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