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Health and weight (young people)

Exercising

"… when I first went there [gym] I did three minutes on a cross-trainer and I was out of breath - I was sweating, it was just ridiculous. Now, yesterday I was on there twenty minutes."
 
There are two important messages when it comes to exercise:

• Exercise builds fitness regardless of whether weight loss happens 
• Weight loss will only happen if exercise is combined with calorie reduction
 
The young people we spoke to understood the importance of taking regular exercise and that the goal of exercise is to improve health not just a weight loss ‘tool’. But few young people had been given any detailed advice about exactly what they needed to do to help them lose weight and get fit. All of them knew they should walk as much as possible instead of taking the car or bus, but many found this difficult in practice and lacked the motivation to keep going.
 
Motivation
Exercise requires encouragement and motivation. Some had parents or friends who helped to motivate them while others needed more support and information.
 

Huw likes going to the gym but still goes through periods where he just can’t work up enough...

Huw likes going to the gym but still goes through periods where he just can’t work up enough...

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Sometimes you feel like, “Oh I just cannot be bothered.” But you’re doing it for yourself, and I sometimes feel, “Oh God, I’m really bad eating today, I need to get to a gym and burn.” And that’s because you think, it kind of like doesn’t make up for it but it makes you feel slightly better about it.
 
And I would go and do it more often but as I haven’t got any time, and some people, some people use that excuse and by saying that I haven’t got any time, and then end up nothing or, even worse, eating. And I, when I’m bored I tend to eat, and so I keep myself as busy as I can doing like youth work and so I think I do something involved with youth work five days a week, and so I try to keep out, but that cuts down the gym time. At one point I went to the gym about five days a week, and that was really good.
 
I’m now sadly down to about one, but and even then it’s a struggle, but that’s only in the time, it’s not due to lack of motivation because although sometimes when my Mum says, “Okay, you can go to gym today,”  I’m like, “Oh yeah, I guess.”  But it’s more, more acceptable to the idea because I think it’s doing something really positive, and dunno, as long as, as long as I have my ipod with me – because I mean, doing it without music is the most boring thing you can do.
 

Sean hoped to get detailed advice about exercise and weight loss from his GP but found what he needed online.

Sean hoped to get detailed advice about exercise and weight loss from his GP but found what he needed online.

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
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When I went to my doctor he was a bit. He just said I need to like just take it easy, like wear running shoes, the information he was giving was something I could find on the internet. It was something I already know, so …
 
Can you remember what he said to you?
 
I told him, like I’m trying to lose weight if he has any advice for me, and he said that I should rest between exercising and stretch before, wear comfortable shoes and yes, that’s it.
 
What advice were you looking for?
 
I was probably hoping he’d tell me like, give me like advice on nutrition and probably give me information where I could seek help with losing weight. But he wasn’t that helpful.
 
Do you remember the websites you looked at or…?
 
What I found useful was the information about running and like how a big in a could start running and like increased the distance and turn my run far that was really useful. What else did I find useful was information about diet and so on like if you run you shouldn’t be eating certain foods because that could make you bloated and it could decrease your performance while exercising.

 

 
What else was useful?
 
Yes, there was information about how to get, how to get motivated like, how to motivate yourself to get up in the morning and go running. That was useful. Like how to get the will power to get out of bed.
 
Tell me that again? Because that’s very interesting. If you can remember anything about it.
 
I said information about getting, motivating yourself, and getting the willpower to get out of bed to go running in the morning. That was useful.
 
Do you remember or what did you do, what did you think, how you motivate yourself?
 
It’s like setting goals, like for one week, I would like try to run five minutes without going over that, and then the next week I’d try to keep bearing up on that time, and try to just be confident in myself.
 
Okay. So you were building up your routine, your exercise routine?
 
Yes. I can run for run for ten minutes non-stop now. But first I used to get tired after one minute and had to stop. I used to have a pain in my stomach. That’s why I went to the doctor to see about, and he said it’s just like, that’s normal, for runners, for beginners runners, to have that pain. 
 

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Some who exercised regularly had been encouraged by parents. Some parents had joined in exercise sessions with them but a few said it was difficult to find the time or motivate their child.
 

Duncan’'s dad helped get him started at the gym but now he’'s motivated to go on his own.

Duncan’'s dad helped get him started at the gym but now he’'s motivated to go on his own.

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How did you feel when your Dad said to you, ‘I think you need to do something’?
 
I mean initially I sort of… initially I did complain about it because it was sort of, it was like really adjusting my routine, which I’d sort of settled into. And then it was sort of like a bit of a wake-up call, sort of the first time I went to the gym, and then sort of, well yes, like I said after the first month it sort of, the ball was rolling by then so it just sort of, it started getting easier, and it sort of became more regular and it basically just kept on going from there.
 
And do you go to the gym with your Dad?
 
I did - well he doesn’t go as regular as I do - but occasionally he’ll go when I go, so, sort of like a team effort. Well at the beginning he went with me all of the time he would go with me as a sort of, just to keep me, keep me going, so he. And then, than after I’d sort of settled into that routine he would come less often, and then when I eventually sort of got to that stage where I didn’t really depend on him to motivate me, that’s when he eased off a little bit.
 

Mary finds it difficult to help her son and gets frustrated with his lack of motivation.

Mary finds it difficult to help her son and gets frustrated with his lack of motivation.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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But I just haven’t managed to find anything. I mean he’s interested, for example, in martial arts but he said, “Oh, I’m not going to do that if I have to go by myself.” So I suppose peer support is probably something as well.
 
And I, I mean I, I must admit I do get very frustrated with him and, and I have to remind myself at times, I say, “Look, he’s only just thirteen.” Where, you know, I do find myself saying to him, “You have to take a certain amount of responsibility. You know what you need to do. You’ve got a bicycle, can you get up and go out on your bicycle.” [laughs].
 
So I suppose they would be some of the things really. It’s just finding [sighs] what makes people, sort of, motivated. It’s the motivation I suppose.
 
Because I would, you know, quite happily take him to the gym and, and things. And I have tried various rouses to get him to do things when I say, “Oh, you know, I’m going out for a walk but it’s quite late, oh, I don’t know if I should go by myself.” [laughs], “Could you come with me?” But he sees through that straight away [laughs]. I mean once or twice it’s worked but he just gets, I mean he just gets bored easily. That’s the other things I think with, makes me feel kind of old when you start saying these things but kids his age just seem to have this like they get bored so quickly. It’s, it’s difficult and I mean at the weekend, for example, we were doing some work in the garden. I said, “Well, why don’t you come out?” Because it was actually very good exercise [laughs] clearing up leaves. I said, “Why don’t you come out and help us?” “Oh no, that’s boring.” Everything is boring and it’s very hard to get them to do things against their will really at this age, you know, getting quite stroppy.
Being part of specialist programmes like SHINE (Self Help Independence, Nutrition and Exercise) also helped motivate some young people to lead more active lives. When they managed to lose some weight and got fitter, they felt a sense of achievement and were motivated to carry on.
 

Becca has got fitter by going to the gym and now genuinely enjoys exercising.

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Becca has got fitter by going to the gym and now genuinely enjoys exercising.

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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It is as if I just want to... I just walk everywhere now it is just like, I would ring up my auntie and say, “Oh can I pop round?” Just you know for the sake of 1) I know I need the exercise and 2) I just do enjoy it like. And I have joined the gym and like I do really enjoy it, and my fitness levels have just - when I first went there I did three minutes on a cross-trainer and I was out of breath - I was sweating, it was just ridiculous. Now, yesterday I was on there twenty minutes you know, and like to me, that is what spurs me on to carry on going you know, to see an actual change. Then I think ‘okay well that is okay I will do it again’ so you know, now I am looking at, I will do twenty minutes on the next level up kind of thing. And… and seeing it improve, and seeing how different it is now, just shows me that obviously I am doing something right. So it does just spur me on to carry on you know? And I do genuinely enjoy exercising as well, I didn’t realise how much I did until I have been doing more, you know, so yeah definitely that, like I do enjoy it a lot so.
Two people who had lived abroad when they were younger said that that it seemed too easy in UK schools to opt out of sport altogether. 
 

Sean was more active in the Caribbean because PE is compulsory in schools there.

Sean was more active in the Caribbean because PE is compulsory in schools there.

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
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And what about the level of physical activity. Were you more active before?
 
Well that’s the thing. I was more active [before] because I think students in the Caribbean - like PE is compulsory, you have to do it - but in England it’s like you could opt out and it’s not compulsory in college either so … that’s the thing I think in college they advertise that you can join clubs and so on, but when I went there wasn’t any clubs at all.
 
There wasn’t and the gym, it was just exclusive to people who are doing sports studies and so on. So you had to book and appointment, and like when you go, they say that, you cannot use it because there is a class being held there right now so it kind of puts you off from going back. And there wasn’t much people in the college that take part in sport activities as well.
Choosing the right exercise
Many young people had tried a variety of different kinds of exercise, finding that some were easier to stick at than others. Most young people had tried the gym and some had had advice about specific workouts using the treadmill, cycling and rowing machines. Girls liked trampolining and many had also tried dancing, cheerleading and swimming. Some found that there were barriers to them taking part in the particular sport that interested them.
 

Vicki loved horse riding when she was younger but now she's too heavy.

Vicki loved horse riding when she was younger but now she's too heavy.

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Horse riding was my life, honestly from when I was like 4 to 16, I’ve had horses all my life, I’ve still got one now, I don’t ride him, he’s this big, but like ‘cos my Mum’s, was absolutely like the most passionate person about horses as well, and then I sold my horse after I finished school, purely because I wasn’t really riding her anymore, and it’s just unfair to keep them if I wasn’t going to like ride her and stuff. But then when I sold my horse that’s, when, like when I was horse riding, that was like my incentive to stay like reasonably smaller, like I’ve put on so much weight since horse riding because the horses were the reasons I didn’t put on the weight. Because if I got too big I wouldn’t be able to ride them, and I miss it so much, but I’m so big now I can’t ride them, I, well I don’t know if I could or not, but I wouldn’t want to ride them because I’d feel like I was hurting them, like, and but I just really want to get back into it, but it’s just so, like so hard. Like people say, “Why don’t you just do it then?” It’s like, “Well you just don’t understand.” Like and people who have, have also horse ride, ridden, and people who right like used to ride with me and stuff, “Like well why don’t you just do it?” And I’m like, “Because I don’t want to.”
 
Like my friend offered me to go and ride her horses, with her, she’s got two. And she says, “Well come out riding with me,” and I was like, “Mate, I’m probably far too heavy for your horse.” And she was like, “No, honestly you’re not.” And I was like, “Okay,” and, I was like, “But I don’t want to ride, like I don’t want to ride him, like because I don’t want to hurt him, and I don’t want to feel like I’m putting, like putting so much pressure on him.” And I just I just feel really uncomfortable, like the horse riding was the big thing that the programme, like, but that my reason for going on the programme was the horse riding, and I wanted to improve my horse riding and stuff and obviously wanted to lose weight, but I wanted to lose weight mainly for my horses. But like after doing that and stuff, I just, I never, I don’t know, I just never really got into it properly and stuff. Like back that and got back into it and stuff and its really sad.
 

Naz and Anaan say it can be a struggle to find women only exercise classes.

Naz and Anaan say it can be a struggle to find women only exercise classes.

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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So the first step is to accept that you have a problem?
 
Anaan' Yes.
 
Or that you want to do something about it?
 
Anaan' Yes, I think that is really important. And then I think also people... information as well, getting information to help you change and accessibility, because sometimes you might want to change, like you might want to do more, I don’t know sports or whatever, or you might want to change your diet, but you know, it might be impossible for you. Right. Because we’re both muslims, so for us…
 
Naz' Ramadan is going to be hard for us innit?
 
Anaan' But I mean we prefer like to do ‘women only’ sessions for exercise and things. But sometimes you struggle to find them in the sports you want to do. Like I really wanted to do kick boxing, but I couldn’t find a women’s only class to do kick boxing.
 
Naz' I can help you there.
 
Anaan' And then there’s just things, so that is a big issue, accessibility. And also information I think. You need both those things. 
Everyone thought that the gym took up quite a lot of time and needed a regular commitment; several had tried but eventually given up going to the gym because they did not get the results they had hoped for.
 

Ella tried going to the gym but didn’'t lose weight.

Ella tried going to the gym but didn’'t lose weight.

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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So you were saying you’re just not into exercise really?
 
I hate it. I mean everyone talks about this endorphin rush that you’re supposed to get after exercising but I swear I’ve not felt that at all. Just felt tired and exhausted, miserable. I go swimming a bit, which is okay. I just get really bored.
 
I used to go to the gym quite a bit, but that had absolutely, and that’s before I was actually losing, trying to diet, I decided to do some exercise, I used to go to the gym about four or five times a week, for a long time actually, and it just didn’t do anything. I mean I had more muscle, but I wasn’t any slimmer or anything like that. I don’t know if that was because I wasn’t doing it properly or because I’d just get bored too quickly and move onto something else, or whatever, but no, I mean exercise has just never been one of the things I like at all.
 
But you said you do go swimming a little bit now?
 
Yeah, I go swimming, I go on the occasional run, but it’s only a quick run ‘cause I have an issue with my ankles so I can’t really run for long, which is another reason I hate exercise to be honest. Yeah I’ve just never, never.. always hated it.
 

Gemma gave up going to the gym because she and her Mum felt that the trainer was pushing her too...

Gemma gave up going to the gym because she and her Mum felt that the trainer was pushing her too...

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Gemma: I used to go to gym, that weren’t through, but used to go to the gym - packed that in ‘cos they started treating (I had my own trainer and that) but they started treating me like an adult and I were about eleven, twelve.So that were really hard.
 
When you say the, the guy at the gym, the trainer, was it a guy? At the gym started treating you like an adult. What do you mean by that?
 
The hours he were making me do, the strictness, absolutely everything. And like pushing me to things that I couldn’t do, and like if I couldn’t do it he’d just basically say, “Oh, you just don’t want to do it, you’re not trying.” And it were just the amount of hours and the amount of things that he wanted me to do.
 
Gemma’s mum: Right from the first.
 
Gemma: Yeah. It just, I mean my Mum used to do it with me, she used to go with me, and even for her she found it hard. So for someone of my age, it were really, really difficult.
 
Gemma’s mum: Yeah, he told her to try this rice diet and we had to be on it for 10 days, you couldn’t heat it up, you had to have it cold with veg in and everything, and ‘cos she were like eleven, I turned round I said, “Right, I’ll do it with you.” Horrible. Then we had to try this other diet didn’t we? But every time she met his targets, he pushed her, and pushed her further and further, so one night she says ‘No. I’m not going back no more’. What eleven year old, she were beating targets what I weren’t reaching and, not so, ‘cos there were no other kids that were actually allowed at the gym at that time. So every time she did she said you should be privileged, we’re trying to help her. Yeah, every time she met it, right go for this, go for that.
 
Gemma: It weren’t like an extra five minutes like, say like on treadmill, it weren’t like an extra five minutes, it were like an extra half hour.And then it started building up from being like half an hour on the treadmills to like two hours on the bike. And that for me was just…
 
Gemma’s mum: Or like joining a full class of exercise.
 
Gemma: Yeah, not, way too much.
 
So they were pushing you too much too soon, or?
 
Gemma: It were just, yeah really. And like the amount of things they wanted me to do as well like, after I’d done bike, over treadmill, after you done treadmill go do weights. And like there were no breaks, and I couldn’t do it.
 
Physically couldn’t do it?
 
Gemma: Yeah, and it started off like going at weekend, then he wanted me to try and go every single day if I could. I couldn’t have done that. As well as school, and then going there, I couldn’t have done it. 
Several people believed that going to the gym cost too much, others though discovered that they were eligible for free/ subsidised gym membership. For information: ask your GP what is available in your local area regarding free gym membership for overweight people. In certain areas GP can prescribe a specific number of cardio/weight/aerobic sessions. Those who were students generally took advantage of university sports facilities.

Keeping active every day
Some young people talked about the importance of keeping active or ‘on the move’ throughout the day. For some young people walking is part of their daily routine. They walk to school, or into town, take the dog for a daily walk or use stairs rather than lifts. Some made it clear that joining an expensive gym is not necessary to get fit!
 

Anaan has found that keeping active throughout the day helps her to avoid putting on weight.

Anaan has found that keeping active throughout the day helps her to avoid putting on weight.

Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
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Anaan' Yes, I’m doing a quite lot. Now I usually play badminton at least once a week.  I carried on walking everywhere, because I used to do that before as well, and I think that was one thing that stopped me getting a lot, lot bigger was the fact that I walked everywhere. So I carried on with that.  What else did I do. And just like I’m more will to do cleaning and stuff at home, just to keep me going throughout the day, just to keep moving and  yes, and I think we’re going to start swimming soon, me and my sisters hopefully, and just, just things like that, just little things that help keep me moving throughout the day, so you’re just not sitting on your bum in front of the computer.
 

Sean developed his own exercise programme that he does at home and along the river path near his...

Sean developed his own exercise programme that he does at home and along the river path near his...

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
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And now you run for ten minutes?
 
Yes.
 
How often do you run?
 
I try to do at least four days a week. Four days.
 
Do you run on streets or where do you go?
 
Usually, there’s a place in London called [road], which is like a back, which is a, its not on the streets. It’s like a back road, like where runners and cyclists and dog walkers use.

 

So apart from running what else do you do?
 
I do sit-ups and stretches and so on.
 
For how long do you do that?
 
I try to do like 20 sit ups and push ups also.
 
Okay.
 
30 minutes doing, 40 minutes twice a week so four days running, two days doing cardios.

 

 
So, you have been doing this for how long?
 
I have been doing since January on and off. 
Not wanting to exercise
Only a few really disliked exercise and didn’t do any at all. They gave various reasons including;

• Not wanting to be seen in shorts or swimsuits
• Disliking competitive games
• Feeling too tired at the end of the day
• Living too far from a gym or sports facilities
• Preferring to watch TV or play on their computer
No one said that they disliked brisk walking or cycling, seeing these activities as different to more ‘organised and formal’ exercising like PE, team games and gym membership. 
 

Emma didn’'t have the confidence to get involved in sport at school.

Emma didn’'t have the confidence to get involved in sport at school.

Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
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How do you explain your weight problem? I mean what do you think caused it?
 
I think it was sheer the lack of exercise, that just spiralled and spiralled. Obviously because I weren’t going out in primary school and running around like the other kids and playing games like other kids were and things. It were just the sheer lack of me wanting to get involved and do exercise because even as a kid I was never the really confident person that a lot of primary school kids are when they mix with each other and things. I were never that confident in myself anyway. So, I just tended like from very, very early on, I tended to try and stop out of going out at break times, try and get out of doing PE, try and get out of doing other things that involved anything to do with exercise and things, because I just didn’t have the confidence to be able to try and do something, and.. I just had the feeling that other people were gonna laugh at me if I failed.
Parents found their children’s problems with exercise difficult to manage. Some said their children made excuses for not wanting to exercise, others felt disappointed because they hadn’t been able to find an appropriate exercise class for their children.
 

Ursula’s daughter has tried all sorts of exercise including ballet which she loved but other people made her self-conscious.

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Ursula’s daughter has tried all sorts of exercise including ballet which she loved but other people made her self-conscious.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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She would go swimming. And then one day, they, she was just left as laughing stock when they were all told to get out of the swimming pool. And she was, she just couldn’t get out of the pool because she was just too big to lift herself up with her arms, just like all the other kids did you know. So it was just appalling. Absolutely appalling. Then we took her to ballet. She absolutely adored ballet. But then when the ballet teacher said, “Does she have a gland problem?” “No, she doesn’t, she just a big girl.” What more can you say?
 
And then she started taking exams, because although she is big, she could do the splits. Can you imagine that? She can do the splits. She’s very, very supple. And as a ballerina, she would’ve been wonderful. But the size of her was … she just looked odd against all the other little sylph-like fairies that were in their tutus. Anyway she went and she did the exams like all the others. And then one of the comments on the,   the certificate is when, that we … we don’t like … this is not the image that the Royal Ballet will want to see. And I just remember thinking, “How dare they make a comment about her size, surely it’s about her abilities to be able to dance”.
 
But there we go. As she got older, you know, gym became nightmare. She knew that she had to go to do the exercises but people were staring. She was self-conscious. She looked awful in those terrible tracksuits because it was a school uniform. Lack of exercise, vicious circle, it, you know it’s, it’s just … it’s self-explanatory really isn’t it?
 

Sue couldn’t find an exercise class that would take her daughter so has decided to go swimming with her twice a week.

Sue couldn’t find an exercise class that would take her daughter so has decided to go swimming with her twice a week.

Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
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So what we’ve done is these blocks of time in my diary are, she said to me that she wanted to do some exercise so I thought okay, I’m going to find some exercise groups. There aren’t any, not for her age, so I said what about Aquasize, because she quite likes swimming, so I rang around all the groups who do the exercise in the pools, she’s too young.
 
She doesn’t want to do like the sports, I think it’s called Sports Culture or something, there’s something recent nearby where they go on a sort of Saturday morning and they do lots of different sports, she doesn’t want to do them because she’ll stand out. She hates to be the youngest, the eldest, the fattest, the slowest, the biggest, any extreme in anything, she just wants to be in the middle and blend until she’s comfortable and then she wants to lead it, but for this she will not even, she won’t even, she won’t even look at it.
 
So what we’ve decided to do because I couldn’t find a group, I couldn’t find any exercises class for her, so I thought okay I’m going to have to go with her and the plan was to find an exercise group and I’d go with her and then we’d see if maybe we could get a couple of friends to come as well, but none of them will take her at her age, I think it’s health and safety and insurance probably, I’m guessing. But that’s frightening, that is frightening.
 
Her school don’t do an awful lot of after school activities, she’s at public school but the one she’s at doesn’t, sport is way low on its list, it really is, and while she does games at school it’s no more than the state schools do and certainly not enough, nowhere near enough. So we’ve decided to go swimming so I now have blocked two, two nights in my diary where straight after school we go swimming , or we’re going swimming, we’re actually starting tomorrow with that one.  
 
Exercise and being underweight
We also interviewed young people who were underweight and who often took too much exercise to burn off what they saw as excess calories. They would exercise whenever they ate anything, not because they wanted to get fit but because they wanted to lose more weight. Being at university and away from home and their parents meant that their excessive exercising often went unnoticed (see Obsessing about food) and young people’s experiences of eating disorders and exercise.

Last reviewed July 2017.

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