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  • Tegan Taylor

Getting your teen moving when they hate exercise

Only one in 10 Australian teens gets the recommended amount of physical activity a day

You might think of Aussie kids as being beach-going, cricket-and-netball-playing, super-fit youngsters, but in fact, when it comes to our teens' physical activity levels, we rank 140th out of 146 countries. According to a study in this week's Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, nine out of 10 Aussie teens aren't doing enough physical activity. For kids aged 11 to 17 years old, exercise guidelines recommend at least an hour of physical activity a day. (This includes incidental movement, like walking to and from school or doing household chores, as well as formal exercise.) Not only is regular exercise vital for young people's sleep and mental health, it brings a range of other health benefits such as preventing disease and protecting fertility. "If this were a medicine we'd all be taking it," said Trevor Shilton, the Heart Foundation's national director for active living. "But instead of that, 90 per cent of our children are being denied it." So how do you get that teen you love to reap the rewards of being more active? Here's what our experts had to say.

Active transport Australian kids are pretty active when it comes to participating in organised sport — but the data shows that's not enough to meet the guidelines, Professor Shilton said. Part of the solution is making their commute more active, so either walking or cycling to school. The benefits of kids making their own way around, rather than being ferried by parents in cars, go beyond just exercise, said Carol Maher, who researches physical activity and health at the University of South Australia. "Kids actually love the independence of being allowed to get themselves from one place to the other," she said. "So it's about looking for opportunities to get them to develop those skills in a safe way." While parents and schools can encourage active commuting, the responsibility doesn't lie solely with them. "When kids walk outside they need access to safe walking and cycling infrastructure ... local governments play a key role here," Professor Shilton said. Most communities have some decent walking and cycling paths, but they're often patchy and don't cover the whole journey.

Thinking beyond phys ed School-based physical education and organised sport plays a huge role in getting kids moving and teaching them to move their bodies skilfully, but it's only part of the solution. Moving school pick-up zones further away, getting kids to walk more between classrooms and including bouts of activity before classes start are all ways schools could infuse more incidental exercise into the day, Dr Maher said. "We need to start gradually making a shift away from thinking of sport as the only physical activity," she said. "There are so many small cultural changes that could be made to slide more physical activity into the day."

Screen time It won't come as a surprise that screen time is a major reason kids aren't moving enough, Dr Maher said. As well as not meeting physical activity guidelines, a high proportion of teens also exceed the recommended time spent in front of screens — kids aged 5-17 are meant to get less than two hours' screen-based entertainment a day. "Screens are just so appealing to most children and, if screens are on offer, 99 out of 100 children will choose them," Dr Maher said. "They're a huge competitor when it comes to getting kids more active." Cutting down on screen time can be a challenge, but it's not impossible. What this looks like in practice will vary from family to family, but Dr Maher suggested tactics like getting kids to do creative activities or help out around the house before they were allowed to ask for screen time, or setting and enforcing time limits on screen use. "You really can change the culture of your family," she said. "If you bring in some rules and enforce them, the family members can change their expectations quite quickly. They do adjust."

Talk the talk, walk the walk Dr Maher encouraged families to foster a culture where activity is ingrained in everyday life, as well as explicitly teaching kids that being strong and fit is part of being well. "We're pretty good at talking to kids about food these days, and I think we need to have those kinds of conversations with kids about being active as well," Dr Maher said. "What we're doing with our bodies is just as important as what we're putting into them." Parents can set the tone for an active lifestyle with things as simple as packing sporting equipment along with the snags and drinks when heading out for a barbecue, Professor Shilton said. "Balls, bats, bathers and boogie boards, bicycles — that's just stuff beginning with B."

Governments need to step up While families can encourage activity and schools can build it into the day, the only way Australia would see a change in teens' physical activity across the board was for governments to make it a priority, Professor Shilton said. "To be 140th in the world is a national shame," he said. "There's nothing inherent in our kids that makes them sedentary — it's the environment. "If we don't get this in check, our obesity epidemic will continue to get worse and that will lead to increased heart disease, diabetes, cancers and so on. "We need to have a robust national policy in this area." Article from ABC Health & Wellbeing

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