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Family Health

Should 12-Year-Olds Be Working Out At The Gym?

Apr 23, 2019

“Do you think the girls would like to do a spin class together?” asked a friend.

Our daughters are 12 years old. I didn’t think my daughter was ready for an adult class, with adult messaging. So I told her that my daughter enjoyed her different activities and I wanted to keep the focus off of her body and more on just having fun.

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There is a growing trend of adolescents heading to the gym for adult-styled workouts with weights. They're also taking spin, barre class and CrossFit. Parents are seeking new fitness alternatives for their adolescents especially once their organized sports have ended or to keep their teens busy. 

'The message that you want your child to receive is that physical activity is fun. Not that you do it because you need to “work off” certain foods, or because your body shape doesn’t fit the societal ideal.'

Research shows that a lifelong love of exercise is good for the mind and the body. But is working out in a gym the best alternative for a young teen? Experts want parents to be mindful of the messages and reasons behind heading to an adult fitness regime. There are risks to young teens working out in adult gyms – ones that need to be taken seriously by gyms, parents and the kids.

Beth Morgan, the general manager of health and fitness at the Markham YMCA, says there is no “magic line” for 11 or 12 year olds and when it is time to hit the gym.

She says there is a big variation in adolescents in terms of height, physical and emotional maturity. Their height, how far along in puberty and their level of emotional sensitivity are all things that teens and coaches should keep in mind when they are considering a physical fitness approach for their kids.

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If a teen is going to a gym, then the coaches who are working with the teen need to be trained in concepts of harassment, what is appropriate for growing bodies, child development and what to say to kids, says Caroline Fusco, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at U of T.

“I would be concerned about the messages they could hear,” says professor Fusco of adult gyms and classes. She acknowledges that the gym is all about individual goals, instead of the larger values of team sports which puts a focus on teamwork, and real-life learning.

The message that you want your child to receive is that physical activity is fun. Not that you do it because you need to “work off” certain foods, or because your body shape doesn’t fit the societal ideal, she adds.

'Working out doesn’t have to be as hard as you think. It can be really simple, like going for a walk as a family.'

Justine Keyserlingk, a teacher at Torq Spin in Toronto, is seeing more teens attending her classes and always takes some extra time to make sure they are set up on the bike correctly. She encourages teens and adults to enjoy the group atmosphere of a class that can be fun and rewarding.

“As parents and physical educators, we have to be mindful of the goals,” says Morgan. “Are we looking to keep a 12 year old active? Are you putting them in a place to feel better about themselves? Or is it about appearance?” 

“There is a lot of pressure on parents and shame if your child isn’t active,” says professor Fusco. This is part of the commercialization and commodification of fitness she said. She would prefer to see really well-funded physical education and team sports at the school level. She noted that people often don’t think about how kids are active during recess and after-school in informal and fun ways.

The Y believes that the community aspect of working out is one that leads to success. “We know that teens are more likely to continue with physical fitness with an adult ally,” says Beth Morgan. The Y strives to give each participant individual attention and are well-trained to deal with all kinds of fitness levels.

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Professor Fusco says the best way to tell if someone is going to maintain a fitness program is the pleasure that they get from it. Morgan also cautions parents against overthinking it. “Working out doesn’t have to be as hard as you think. It can be really simple, like going for a walk as a family.”

For some teens, team sports and organized recreation aren't a draw towards fitness — so, the gym may be an option. Luckily, my daughter enjoys team sports and loves physical activity for the sheer joy of it. I am going to keep encouraging her stay in her activities and put off a gym membership for a few years.

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