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The A to Z's of Teenagers: X Is for eXercise

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My father was a you-rest-you-rust kind of guy. Just about every Sunday of my young life, from when I was maybe 5 years old until I left for college, he took me (coerced me when I was an older teen) to go out with him to “do something.” In the winter we ice skated on frozen ponds or sledded the rolling hills of Bethpage State Park or went bowling or played ping pong or pool in the damp and drafty basement. When the weather was better we hit buckets of golf balls at a driving range or biked around the neighborhood or played catch in the yard. But mostly we spent our Sundays on the tennis court. Tennis was his sport, and he was very good at it—although as a teacher and coach he left something to be desired. Like, for example, patience.

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Along with this full-throttle immersion into physical activity, I also went to public school prior to the defunding of everything that wasn’t on a No Child Left Behind standardized test. Which is to say, I had gym class every day, 1st through 12th grades. It was required. I played intramural sports after school (which did not cost an extra fee). I was first singles on the girls’ tennis team all through high school. I’ve tried to instill this love of physical activity in my three children, with varying degrees of success.

My eldest son had the misfortune of playing second base on the losingest baseball team in the history of kid sports. (His team, which did not win a single game, once lost 92-3. Yes, 92.) This scarred him to such an extent that he has never played another team sport. My second son was born without a competitive bone in his body. Then came Lizzie, my great hope. She won’t say this about herself, but she is quite the athlete. Just born that way. Unfortunately for my grand plans of mother-daughter bonding over sports and exercise, she went on to choose activities completely alien to me. (OK, I get it. I know this was on purpose.) She was into Aikido in elementary school. She was a wrestler all through middle school. She threw discus and shot-put on the high school track team. I’ve been chauffeur and fan, but it’s not like what my dad and I had (for better—and worse).

I wish she was closer to going outside and playing Frisbee with me, or kicking around a soccer ball.

Of course I’ve tried to drag her into my world. And I’m betting you know how that has gone. She hated tennis. Was not interested in running. Thought going to the gym was beyond boring. Fencing? Nope. Yoga, Pilates, water aerobics, barre class? Not under penalty of death. Finally, last year, we discovered something we both enjoyed, although she is actually good at it, and what I enjoy is watching her be good at it, and at least part of what she enjoys is watching me be not-good at it. I will say one thing. This is one activity I never ever did with my dad: belly dancing.

And now, a word from the teenage daughter:

I hate exercise. I even hate the word “exercise.” When my mom says, “Let’s go to the gym and exercise,” I growl (sometimes so she can hear me). But if anyone says, “Let’s go to the park and play Frisbee,” I’m like, yeah, I’ll be right there.

I wish I could go to the gym and work out for an hour the way my mom does. I’ve always kind of envied her discipline. But what she does feels like work to me. And what I do feels like play. For most teens (that is, teens who actually move, I know a lot of teens don’t), “exercise” is just what we do. It’s integrated into our daily lives, like school sports or weekend Frisbee games. What I like about this approach to exercise is that you’re learning other skills while you move your body; like teamwork, leadership, sportsmanship, what it means to win, what it means to lose and the value of rules. Also, when you’re in the midst of the game, you don’t think: Hey, I’m getting exercise now. I am getting cardio. You’re just doing it.

To me, walking into a gym like the one my mom belongs to is overwhelming and intimidating. So many machines, many of which look like they could rip you apart. So many settings to mess with. Of course I could take instructions from my mom. Yeah, right. You show me a teen who likes to be instructed by her mother in public and I’ll show you a teen who is lying!

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Hey, moms. I know that couch potato teens are a big deal these days. I have friends who sit around all day in front of a screen, zombie-fied, never seeing the light of day. The only time they get up is to get a can of Monster. I know how dangerous this is. We learn about it in school, and my mother has pounded it into my head. But that doesn’t mean I’m any closer to going to the gym with her. In fact, I wish she was closer to going outside and playing Frisbee with me, or kicking around a soccer ball. It’s not all one way, moms.

Which brings me to belly dancing, a class my mom and I are taking together. It’s exercise, but it’s fun. You get to wear stuff with jingly coins and—here’s the icing on the cake—you get to watch your mother make a fool of herself. That’s a win-win.

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