Your teen wants to get in shape this summer? What to say and when to worry - Alina Reyzelman

Your teen wants to get in shape this summer? What to say and when to worry

If your children say they want to start exercising or working out more this summer, don’t celebrate just yet.

I know most parents would be thrilled to see their teens taking the initiative to get off the couch, step away from electronic devices and move more. But it’s worth finding out why your child wants to exercise. Eating disorder experts warn that setting fitness goals could mean trouble for kids.

With the alarming increase in eating disorders and body dissatisfaction among children, parents need to know that even seemingly healthy behaviors can become problematic. While parents and guardians don’t need to panic right away, they should ask questions.

The first step is finding out what “getting in shape” means to them, according to Signe DarpinianWendy Sterling and Dr. Shelley Aggarwal, authors of “Raising Body Positive Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Diet-Free Living, Exercise and Body Image.”

Responding first with curiosity “encourages communication and keeps the door open,” said Darpinian, who is also an eating disorder therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The next question is why your teens want to pursue fitness. Understanding if their motivation is appearance-based or an internal goal will guide your response. When negative body image is the driving factor, it makes sense that parents might be tempted to encourage a teen’s plans to get in shape.

Contrary to the dominant messages in our culture, “intentional weight loss is not sustainable and is incredibly dangerous,” Darpinian said. By the time teens express wanting to change their bodies, it’s likely “there is already a history of body dissatisfaction” that needs to be taken seriously.

“If parents don’t feel they have the skills or tools to support their child’s body image, they can seek a consultation with a therapist who is weight neutral, HAES-aligned (Health at Every Size) or a certified eating disorder specialist,” Darpinian advised.

That might sound like an overreaction to many parents. But she’s learned over the course of her 23-year career treating eating disorders that “when we can catch something at the very first sign, it leads to the most favorable outcomes.”

If athletic goals are driving the desire to work out, parents still need to keep important safeguards in place. First, ensuring teens are adequately fueling their bodies will lower their eating disorder risk and improve their performance, said Sterling, a registered dietitian in Menlo Park, California, who specializes in both eating disorders and sports nutrition.

Today’s athletes who want to improve their split times for soccer tryouts aren’t casually going to the local high school track with a stopwatch. Instead, they’re likely working out with wearable biometric technology and studying reports in an app.

“Number-driven metrics disconnect athletes from their bodies’ wisdom” and can contribute to unhealthy levels of exercise and unrealistic competition with peers, Sterling warned.

Parents should ask children what their plans are for including rest days, which Sterling noted are often a forgotten part of training: “Rest days are important for reducing inflammation, helping with repair of muscles and recovery.”

Fitness trackers aren’t the only technology that could affect a child’s approach to exercise. With #fitspo influencers promising a “snatched” waist or six-pack abs — often combined with unsound diet advice — parents are right to keep an eye on a teen’s new fitness fixation. Social media is filled with images of idealized body types, and algorithms can take a kid from a fun dance cardio video to extreme dieting content in minutes.

Given the risks for teens making changes to exercise and diet, parents should act quickly if they notice their child is restricting food, losing weight or showing signs of fatigue, according to Aggarwal, who is an adolescent medicine physician in Northern California.

In addition to physical symptoms, changes in mood or relationships are also red flags that would warrant a conversation with your child — and a visit to the doctor.

If your teen is determined to pursue a new fitness regimen, Aggarwal suggested “looping in the child’s primary care physician from the start” so parents have additional support in monitoring the child’s physical and mental health.

Recognizing problematic exercise or dietary changes can be especially tough for parents because weight loss and thinness are so valued in our society. Although demonized in our culture, weight gain is essential during the teen years: “Adolescence is the second most important growth time in our lives,” Aggarwal noted. Parents who “normalize weight gain” and see their child’s well-being holistically can help promote truly healthy development in their teens.

“There is so much pressure on people in general but especially on teens with these narrow ideas of what it means to have a ‘good body,’” Aggarwal added. It’s why it’s essential for parents to pay attention. “If you see your young person becoming victim to these messages, you’re able to recognize it and support them.”

Many parents are more aware than ever of the negative impact of diet culture on teens. But eating disorder symptoms can be incredibly sneaky, as Darpinian has seen in her therapy practice more often in recent years.

Parents of patients regularly tell her, “I just thought they wanted to eat healthier and exercise more.” What might start out as a health and fitness kick can quickly become unhealthy without the awareness and support of family members.

Being informed about eating disorders helps protect kids. And just as important, parents can approach questions about bodies, food and exercise in a way that builds connection and trust. In a world that is always telling teens their bodies aren’t good enough, what young people need most is their parents’ unconditional love and acceptance — and the support to get professional help if needed.