Teen Health Help

Are your teen's behaviors healthful--or typical?

Teen girl drinking vegetable juice
JGI / Jamie Grill / Getty Images

When it comes to pre-teen health, my household is a mixed bag. While my 12-year-old spends several hours a week figure skating, it's also true that off-ice, you're more likely to find her holding an iPod or a tablet than a hula hoop or a basketball. And she may be on a green smoothie kick at breakfast-time, but she also asks for ice cream after almost every skating lesson or practice. My 9-year-old loves to eat fruits and vegetables, but he's also a screen-time junkie (if he can get away with it).

I just try to help them maintain a balance, but I know this will continue to be a challenge as both kids officially enter adolescence. A 2013 teen health study from researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) looked at obesogenic behaviors in teenagers, looking for patterns in the physical activity and nutrition habits of nearly 10,000 kids ages 11 to 16.

They identified three patterns: healthful, unhealthful, and typical. Not too surprisingly, only about one-quarter of the teens fell into the healthful group. Of these, almost 65% exercised 5 or more days a week. They were least likely to spend time in front of a screen and most likely to eat fruits and vegetables daily (although still not as many servings as they really need). They also were least likely to consume sweets, soft drinks, chips and French fries. Teens in this group were most likely to be of normal weight, and reported the lowest rates of depressive symptoms.

If this sounds like your teen: Keep up the good work (or enjoy your good luck) while promoting an even healthier diet and being alert for a slowdown in physical activity. That's common in this age group.

In the unhealthful group (also about a quarter of the study subjects), teens had low physical activity and high levels of sedentary behavior.

They ate few fruits and vegetables and lots of sweets, sweetened drinks, chips and fries. These teens also had lower mental-health scores. If this sounds like your teen: Work on adding more physical activity to your teen's day first, through active commuting or even an app like Kurbo, and talk with your child's doctor or school counselor if you have any concerns about depression.

About half the students in the study were classified as typical. They were least likely than even their "unhealthful" peers to exercise regularly. While they infrequently consumed soft drinks, chips, fries, and sweets, they also rarely ate fruits and vegetables. If this sounds like your teen: Many teens in this group are unhappy with their bodies and trying to lose weight by cutting calories. They need help understanding that physical activity is important for weight loss (and good health), and that a healthy diet should include plenty of produce.

Overall, the teens in the study "showed a surprising variability in eating patterns," said the study's lead author, Ronald J.

Iannotti of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "But most—about 74 percent—did not have a healthy pattern."


Iannotti RJ and Wang J. Patterns of physical activity, sedentary behavior, and diet in U.S. adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 53, No. 2, August 2013.

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