Wanted: Healthy, Vibrant Teens!

Parents, we need to be growing fitter, stronger, healthier young people.

This past July, 120 teenagers descended on the campus that houses the Philadelphia Trumpet offices in Edmond, Oklahoma, and participated in our 17th annual youth camp here. This camp, sponsored by the Philadelphia Church of God, is designed to ensure these young people go home mentally charged and focused, their attitudes and spirits refreshed and renewed.

They also tend to arrive home utterly exhausted, physically.

For three weeks, these teens spent their days mountain biking, canoeing and practicing archery, as well as playing basketball, water polo, soccer, softball, volleyball and flag football. They walked, and often jogged, between activities, as well as to breakfast, lunch and dinner. In the evenings they often engaged in other taxing activities, including a track and field event and camp dances. And if all that activity wasn’t strenuous enough, much of it occurred in daytime temperatures that hovered in the mid 90s.

For some, just reading that paragraph is enough to make us sweat. Personally, as much as I love sports and the outdoors, the thought of spending six to seven hours a day out in the sizzling Oklahoma weather—chasing balls, paddling across lakes and biking through ravines—isn’t nearly as appealing as it once was. But to the teens who attended camp, God says this three-week display of physical strength and endurance was glorious and honorable!

You can read His admiration in Proverbs 20:29: “The glory of young men is their strength.”

Of course, it’s true that physical health, strength and vitality in any person is praiseworthy. Isn’t it interesting though, that God identifies explicitly physical strength and energy as a defining and glorious quality of youth? In God’s mind, being a physically fit and healthy teenager—a young man (or woman) with strength and agility, someone who is robust and energetic—is a splendid and honorable accomplishment.

It’s also a state of being that God wants all teenagers to experience!

This is why, beyond merely seeking to make camp fun, we have our teens engage in so much physically demanding activity. Together with the high-quality meals and snacks we feed them, the slew of sports and outdoor activities serve to improve the overall physical health and strength of the teens. It works, too. In virtually every case, teens depart camp stronger, fitter and healthier than when they arrived. Beyond the short-term goal of improved health, one of the longer-term goals of our youth camps is to encourage the teens to embrace healthy and active living as a way of life—a lifestyle.

Once embraced, this lifestyle will help them develop a state of physical health, strength and vibrancy that God says will be to their glory and honor!

A Dying Breed

It’s a tragic fact that strong, healthy teenagers have become a dying breed. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, over the past 20 years the percentage of overweight teenagers has more than tripled. A 2007 report by the Stanford School of Medicine estimated that almost one in five 2-to-19-year-olds is overweight. One national survey, cited in the Stanford report, showed that two thirds of high school students are not getting the recommended level of physical activity. Another study found that in America, 10-to-16-year-olds are engaged in physical activity for only 12.6 minutes per day.

It’s fact. The majority of teens today have poor physical health and display embarrassingly little strength and vitality!

Naturally, our first inclination is to blame others for this epidemic of physical weakness and ill health. It’s the fault of fast-food restaurants and the Internet, the mainstream media and video game companies, the government and our school systems. Truth is, most of the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of parents. We’re often the ones purchasing the chicken nuggets and french fries. We’re the ones buying the video game consoles. We’re the ones allowing our children and teens to laze on the couch.

Ultimately, we’re the ones failing to cultivate within our teens the desire to live a healthy and active lifestyle.

“I’ll Make My Body”

Consider the wisdom in the words of a father who clearly did not fail in his responsibility to forge his son—a puny child who suffered from chronic asthma—into a towering physical specimen. “Theodore,” this man said one day to his 12-year-old son, “you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.”

Here was Theodore Roosevelt telling young “Teedie”—the future president of the United States—that he needed to strengthen his body!

With gritted teeth and fiery determination, young Theodore Roosevelt replied to his father, “I’ll make my body.” Once made, that promise “was adhered to with bulldog tenacity,” wrote historian Edmund Morris. Young Theodore immediately joined a gym and began working out daily. At home, his father converted the back porch into a web of ropes, bars and mats. “For many years,” wrote his sister Corinne, “one of my most vivid recollections is seeing him between horizontal bars, widening his chest by regular, monotonous motion—drudgery indeed.”

Motivated by his father’s admonishment, Theodore Roosevelt spent his early teenage years outside—on the porch, on horseback and in the woods—transforming himself into the barrel-chested, risk-taking, energy-filled Rough Rider that he later became!

Like Roosevelt Sr., it is the responsibility of parents to help make their teens healthy and strong. Perhaps we lack the financial resources of the Roosevelts. Maybe we can’t enroll our children in gym class or fill our yards with fancy sporting equipment. But we can make our children switch off the tv or computer. We can enroll them in a sport, or dispatch them to the local woods, or help them find a job. We can send them outside to climb trees and ride bikes, to shoot hoops or build a fort. We can take them hiking and fishing, or simply join them in doing a few pushups and sit-ups. We can have them do chores, even physically demanding ones, around the house. If they can wrap their thumbs around a joystick, they can surely wrap their thumbs around the broom handle.

As parents, the responsibility is on us to cultivate within our teens the desire to be physically healthy and strong, to be active and energetic—to be motivated to make their strength a trait worthy of glory and admiration!

In Balance

Of course, these efforts to cultivate strong, healthy teens must be balanced. They must be complemented with similarly strenuous mental and spiritual exercises. This is why, in addition to all the physically demanding activities at our youth camps, teens take Bible classes, and classes on leadership and womanhood. It’s why we teach them public speaking and ballroom dance. It’s the reason we have them perform on stage and encourage them to play music and embrace art. And it’s why, particularly in this technology-ridden age of perpetual distractions, we encourage our teens to develop a love for reading, study and meditation.

As the 120 teens that came to camp returned home, it was our hope that amid their meditations about camp they think about the strenuous activity they engaged in over those three weeks. Not how difficult or hot it was, or how much they sweated, or how sore they were. But on the wonderful opportunity they had to develop and display physical strength and vitality—traits God admires as the glory of youth.