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Inactive Teens Are More Likely to Develop Behavioral Problems

by Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D., Director of San Jose Counseling and Psychotherapy

Most of us are aware that the medical community is alarmed over the fact that America's kids are overweight and in worse physical shape than their counterparts 30 years ago. There are many factors that are blamed for this including fattening foods, television, video games, computers and technology in general.

The focus of research with overweight and out of shape teenagers has focused on their poor health. Overweight teens are at a significant risk of growing into overweight adults and overweight adults develop a host of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gout, and arthritis.

One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that obese teenagers who were the most overweight had twice the death rate in their 70s as men and women who were not overweight in their teens.

Other research has found a link between being overweight, lack of physical activity and emotional problems in teenagers. For the study, more than 7,000 teenagers took part in a survey that assessed their levels of physical activity and mental and emotional health. The adolescent boys who did less than one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week reported significantly more symptoms of anxiety and depression than their counterparts who were more active. The researchers reported that the inactive teenage girls in the study had similar problems, and were more likely than the inactive boys to have sleep problems and impulsive behaviors. Both the inactive boys and girls were also more likely to have social problems and attention disorders.

Mental health counselors have long known that adolescence is a time of developmental challenges -- emotionally, mentally and physically. These problems are complicated by feelings of low self worth and exacerbated by lack of exercise. It appears that exercise may be a preventative measure for warding off anxiety and depression in teenagers just as it is in adults.

With teenagers, developing healthy self-esteem and body images can sometimes be a problem. One of the known psychological benefits of regular physical activity in teens is improved self worth. Additionally, adolescents who exercise regularly tend to have better and a more realistic body image. Compounding that with negative mental and emotional effects brought on by physical inactivity can make transitioning into adulthood even more difficult. Research has suggested that exercise can help make this transition easier and can lead to establishment of lifelong healthy habits.

Scientists believe that exercise helps with mood because it causes a neurochemical change in the body. When a person exercises, the body releases chemicals known as endorphins which work with the receptors in your brain to reduce sensations of pain. At the same time, endorphins create a positive feeling in the body. This is what people experience a high after a workout and say that they feel in the zone and euphoric. For most people, that exhilarated feeling is also accompanied by a more positive perspective.

Endorphins act as analgesics because they diminish the perception of pain and they also act as sedatives. They are actually made in the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the body and are released with neurotransmitters in the brain. With teenagers, the positive effects of endorphins and exercise can be particularly prominent.

Increased physical activity with teens with depression or anxiety could be a highly effective and relatively easy way to help with normal development. A growing body of evidence suggests that an increase in physical activity correlates with an increase in feelings or well being in both adolescents and adults. Research indicates that there is a psychological and physiological connection that, when operating together, explains the beneficial effects of exercise on mental health.


Capewell S, Critchley JA. (2008). Adolescent overweight and coronary heart disease. The New England Journal of Medicine, 358(14): 1521.

Fredricks, Randi. (2008) Healing & Wholeness: Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Mental Health. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse.

Kantomaa, M. T., Tammelin, T. H., Ebeling, H. E., & Taanila, A. M. (2008). Emotional and behavioral problems in relation to physical activity in youth. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 40(10), 1749-1756.

Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D., is an author, researcher, and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (#47803) in San Jose, California. She works with teenagers and adults with anxiety, depression, addiction, and eating disorders. To learn more about Dr. Fredricks' work, visit

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.
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