When I was a teenager, and replaced playing basketball every fall and winter, with spending more time inside watching television and playing video games, I remember feeling different–antsy, less happy and more in my head. Looking back, I'm pretty sure it was all normal, possibly just my puberty-induced hormones disagreeing with me.
As my teenage kids got older, spent more time with their friends and scrolling on devices, I noticed a huge dip in their moods. Their behavior reminded me of my own teenage emotional waves, which then reminded me of the one thing that helped me tremendously: regular exercise.
While many of my high school friends were staying fit and active through team sports, it wasn't my thing. Although, I didn't love sports, I did love watching workout videos in my basement after school or going to the local gym to lift weights and spend a half-hour on the elliptical. I was introduced to the post-workout high very early in life, over thirty years later, exercise is still an outlet for me.
I decided to gently introduce my son to exercise. I mentioned how much it had helped me and the benefits of being more active: He'd become stronger, sleep better and not be so grumpy all of the time. To my surprise, he took to it. For the past four years, he’s been lifting weights six days a week and it has helped him to manage his anxiety, anger and irritability.
We know exercise has so many benefits, but can it really help teens who suffer from anxiety, or was my son an exceptional case?
“One of the best prescriptions - and one I share with many clients - for anxiety, is exercise,” says Arlene B.Englander, LCSW, MBA, a Columbia University trained licensed psychotherapist with over twenty years of clinical experience. “In fact,” she adds, “the NIH prescribes at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise–150 minutes a week–for most of us. Exercise releases endorphins–sometimes referred to as our bodies’ Prozac–which soothes us and helps us feel relaxed."
Sports and physical activity, even if just happening outside in the backyard "opens up a whole new world of fun, a positive connection to their peers and another opportunity to succeed and feel good about themselves," says Englander. Exercise also gets our teens off of their phones, away from the television and gives a real break from all of today’s social pressure.
Englander goes on to explain that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a research-proven technique that’s an effective tool for combating anxiety, can help youngsters with pain-producing thoughts (i.e. “what-if” questions or catastrophizing), which are the building blocks of anxiety. In order to address these thoughts in a more compassionate, logical way, though, a relatively calm state is required. It’s then easier for teens to think more calmly about stressful thoughts. Plus, the physical benefits can help youngsters to feel better about themselves and their body image.
The most impactful way to introduce your youngsters to the many benefits of exercise? Englander says is to participate in regular physical activity yourself. So basically, it’s a win-win.