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Teens interested in more than muscles

New study shows that adolescents appreciate the mental benefits of exercise as much as the physical ones
September 11, 2013
By Suzanne Bowness

Courtesy of Santa Catalina School (Flickr Creative Commons)
Courtesy of Santa Catalina School (Flickr Creative Commons)

When it comes to appreciating the full benefits of exercise, it seems teens are smarter than their parents.

In a recent study on adolescent perceptions of physical activity, James Gavin, a professor in the Department of Applied Human Sciences, found that teens are just as aware of the mental benefits of exercise — increased confidence, self-esteem, autonomy and so on — as they are of physical benefits.

James Gavin James Gavin is the Director of the Centre for Human Relations and Community Service | Photo by Kate Hutchinson

“We’re talking about a generation that has grown up with parents who have yo-yoed around exercise, talked incessantly about what they should do and what they haven’t been doing. These adolescents are savvy about the lingo of exercise and see it as part of a lifestyle, whereas a generation ago there might have been less of a pervasive awareness,” says Gavin.

Prompted in part by current statistics that show most teens are not getting enough exercise, Gavin and his colleagues surveyed more than 1,000 students from public and private schools in Montreal.

The researchers gauged their perception of physical activity by interviewing the participants in small groups and asking them to discuss questions about what they thought people got out of exercise, and how they thought physical activity affected overall mood, actions and personality.

Although the students did comment on physical benefits of exercise like flexibility and endurance, they also perceived elements like leadership and team-skills development, positive emotional impact and character development to be just as beneficial. The study found these responses to be equally common among boys and girls.

James Gavin Practising aikido is one way James Gavin chooses to keep fit

Gavin, who is also director of the Centre for Human Relations and Community Studies, says he was surprised to find that the teens were so aware of the personal-growth benefits associated with physical activity. He thinks this sophisticated understanding should be a wake-up call to those who market exercise.

“It’s a hugely important finding because the marketing of exercise to both adolescents and adults has been largely around how it makes you look better, or helps you lose weight,” he says.

When they asked what suggestions the participants had for their physical education instructors, Gavin and his team were given a particularly interesting answer.

“The predominant response was ‘we need more variety, choice and flexibility,’ ” Gavin reports, adding that many of the participants said they were on the lookout for new ways to interest themselves in physical activity.

“If physical education in the school system looks like running around a gym and doing calisthenics, or playing certain games they’ve been playing since grade school, then it may not have the appeal or impact teens are looking for.”

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