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Teens in Treatment: The Value of an Active Lifestyle

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

Why Residential Treatment Centers (RTC) For Teens Include Exercise in Treatment Programs

The benefits of exercise for the mind, body, and emotions are well-documented. Exercise helps people who have no physical, psychological, or emotional disorders maintain a strong body, a sharp mind, and a balanced emotional life. Exercise also helps people with physical, psychological, or emotional disorders restore strength to their bodies, clarity to their minds, and harmony to their emotions. It’s not a magic pill that completely solves or resolves any one disease, illness, or pathology. But as time goes by and researchers publish more data about the benefits of exercise, what we learn is that though exercise is not a one-stop solution for anything, it is one thing that we, as humans, can do in our lives that helps just about everything.

That’s not an exaggeration.

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of regular exercise that have been proven – without dispute – by decades of research.

Benefits of Regular Exercise

  1. Reduced risk of chronic diseases
  2. Improved memory and cognitive function
  3. Improved sleep
  4. Reduced risk of mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety
  5. Improved cardiovascular function
  6. Greater bone strength
  7. Improved muscular strength and endurance
  8. Improved immune function
  9. Reduced stress
  10. Improved overall quality of life

It’s difficult to find one thing that’s so simple that can do so much good. Exercise ranks right next to good eating and sleeping habits for health benefits. That’s why it’s part of the treatment regimen for almost every chronic disease people experience. From physical issues like cancer or diabetes, to emotional or psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, or alcohol and substance use disorders, professionals recommend exercise as a way to promote overall health and wellness.

For adolescents in RTC treatment centers for teens diagnosed with mental health and/or alcohol/substance use disorders (AUS/SUD), reconnecting – or connecting for the first time – with regular exercise and an active lifestyle can be exactly what they need to help them on their treatment journey.

You can find lists of benefits of exercise all over the internet. Some have specific benefits listed under the broad categories we mention. Others have benefits that do not appear on the list above. From lifestyle magazines to the Mayo Clinic to community blogs, the facts about exercise are everywhere. We found the information above in the latest report on the benefits of exercise and physical activity published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) called “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition.” This report, released in 2019, is a follow-up on the first report of the same name, published by the CDC in 2008.

One thing this new set of guidelines emphasizes is the importance of maintaining regular activity over the course of a lifetime, and that regular activity can come in many shapes and forms. In other words, one thing this new set of guidelines adds to the guideline published in 2008 is the importance of what people in the health, exercise, and fitness world refer to as life-long sports.

Why Life-Long Sports?

Why the focus on lifelong sports in this new CDC report?

While the CDC doesn’t come right out and say it, they do introduce the guidelines with some disturbing facts:

  • Between 2008 and 2016, only 22% of adult males and 19% of adult females met the aerobic and muscle strengthening guidelines recommended in the 2008 CDC report
  • Between 2011 and 2015, only 30% of adolescent males and 12% of adolescent females met the aerobic and muscle strengthening guidelines recommended in the 2008 CDC report

We can connect the dots on this information without too much trouble, and tell you what we think they’re getting at.

What we see here, in general, is that people in the U.S., in general, do not exercise enough. And what we see here, specifically, is that while almost a third of males meet the exercise and activity guidelines during adolescence, that number drops when they become adults. We also see that for females, the number who meet the exercise and activity guidelines is far too low during adolescence. Though it improves during adulthood, it’s still not good enough.

That means – among other things – we need to rethink how we approach sports, and exercise broadly speaking, in our kids and teenagers. The thing we need to understand is that the team sports we love so much and cherish so dearly in our country do not always serve to improve the health and wellness requirements of our population over the course of a lifetime.

That’s why the exercise component in the most highly regarded residential treatment centers for teens focuses on sustainable exercise, mindfulness-based activities, and lifelong sports. They’re fun. They’re practical. They teach teens habits that will sustain their overall health and wellbeing through adolescence and beyond.

Sustainable Exercise: It’s Different than Competitive Athletics

Think about these questions:

How many youth and high school football players continue playing in college?

Of those, how many continue playing professionally or recreationally, as adults?

And of those, how many continue to play football into old age?

While football may be an extreme example, we use it to make a point. By the time you get to the third question, you realize the answer is – statistically speaking – indistinguishable from zero. You can ask the same set of questions for our other most beloved sports, baseball and basketball, and add an up-and-coming sport – soccer – to the list and get similar results. Yes, people play baseball, basketball, and soccer as young adults. Some play into middle age. Very few play these sports into old age, though. And if we’re honest, we also admit that adult baseball is rare. For most adults who play in a recreational league out on the diamond, what they play is softball, not baseball.

Are we suggesting that we drop these sports from our youth and high school leagues?

No, not at all. We’d never do that. We love our sports. We love everything about them. Our kids learn all kinds of life lessons from team sports. They carry those lessons with them into adulthood, where those lessons serve them well.

How to Prioritize Life-Long Activities

What we suggest is that, in addition to these sports, adults focus on two things:

  1. Extracting the physical training elements of these sports that are not skill-specific, and teaching kids and youth understand how pushups, sit-ups, running, weight training, balance training, and agility training can and should continue into adulthood, whether they’re connected to a sport or not.
  2. Teaching and creating opportunities for kids and adolescents to participate in life-long, individual sports and activities, with the same passion and commitment we teach them to participate in our favorite team sports.

If we do that, then we can instill a love of exercise and activity in them from an early age. They can form good habits and make those habits stick into adulthood, middle, and old age.

At this point in this article, you may still wonder what all this has to do with adolescents receiving mental health or addiction treatment in residential treatment centers for teens.

That’s a valid question – with an easy answer. Every health benefit listed at the beginning of the article supports and facilitates the lifelong process of achieving and sustaining recovery. Whether that means developing the skills to manage the symptoms of a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, or forming positive lifestyle habits that promote lifelong abstinence and sobriety, an active lifestyle is a key element in overall wellbeing.

Now we’ll explain exactly what we mean when we say sustainable exercise and lifelong sports.

What Are Lifelong Sports?

We know you can figure out what a life-long sport is by the words in the phrase. It’s a sport you can do for your whole life.

Jogging and Running

During the 1970s, Americans caught the running and jogging bug. We’ve had it ever since. Not everyone, of course – some people hate running and won’t run a step unless they’re being chased. Nowadays, though, people start with mile-long fun runs, maybe progress to 5ks or 10ks, and then some go on to run cross country or track in high school. For lifelong runners and joggers though, it’s often a family thing. You might say it runs in families. One of the main reasons is that it’s a low-cost, low time-input, high-benefit activity. Though running on concrete or asphalt can damage the joints over time, running on grass or dirt trails is a great way to minimize the impact. The best thing about jogging and running is that once you start, you never have to stop – even in middle and old age.

Many of the most well-regarded RTC treatment centers for teens have on-site gyms equipped with treadmills that make running and jogging an activity that teens in treatment can do every day.


For people who dislike running, walking works great. A brisk walk can burn nearly as many calories as a light jog, with no risk at all to joint health. Kids can start a walking habit by walking the family dog, walking to school, or walking to friend’s houses. High schoolers can walk anywhere their parents let them. And young adults, adults in middle age, and older adults can incorporate healthy walks into their daily routine. Some people love walking in the morning to get the day going, while others prefer a walk after dinner to clear the mind, aid digestion, and start the process of relaxing before bedtime.

On the weekends and during experiential therapy times during the week, staff at many treatment centers for teens guide their teens on therapeutic walks. It’s a great way to get away from the therapy rooms and participate in an activity that’s easy, fun, and with the right perspective, can become a form of meditation.

To learn about one approach to walking that supports recovery, please read our article

Mindful Walking: A Tool for Recovery


Almost all kids enjoy bike riding, but for reasons unknown to us, most people forget all about their bikes when they go off to college. Those that don’t drop the bike in college often stop riding when they become young adults and enter the workforce. We urge everyone to rethink this. Cycling is a fun alternative to running. It’s a great way for adults to stay in healthy and get plenty of time outdoors. The best thing about cycling, though, is that riding bikes is fun at any age. Although this article is about activities for teens, we urge the parent reading to give cycling a shot. We’re right. But please do wear a helmet.

Many top-rated residential treatment centers for teens have on-site gyms equipped with stationary bikes that make cycling an activity they can do every day.

Did you know there’s a thing called mindful cycling? It’s like meditation in motion. Read our article here to learn more:

Mindful Cycling


Swimming is a fantastic whole-body activity that improves muscular strength and endurance and improves cardiovascular health. Most kids learn to swim at a young age. You don’t have to swim laps to benefit: spending time in the pool, moving your body in a relaxed but sustained manner is as good for you as taking a walk.

 RTC treatment centers for teens that are located in repurposed homes in residential neighborhoods often have on-site swimming pools that allow teens in treatment to relax and have fun while getting exercise and supporting their overall health and wellness.


Surfing is another water-based sport you can learn early and keep doing your whole life. It combines swimming with athletic skill and connection to nature that enthusiasts swear is deeply profound, spiritual, and unlike any other activity possible. Though you need to live near an ocean with appropriate waves to make this part of your life, we recommend trying surfing if you can.

RTC treatment centers for teens located near the beach may include surfing as experiential therapies and activities. Surfing combines mind, body, and awareness in a natural activity that’s fun – and for some, life-changing.


Hiking is wonderful, because, like surfing, it combines the health benefit of exercise with the health benefits of being in nature. Getting away from the stress and noise of the city is a perfect way to relieve stress. Combine with carrying a backpack and maybe doing an overnight camping trip or two, and you double your benefit. You get stronger from carrying the backpack, and a night out under the stars does wonders for the mind and spirit.

In some parts of the country, RTC treatment centers for teens are located near state and national parks. At these teen treatment facilities, staff can take teens on hikes – mostly on the weekends – and spend time getting good exercise and soaking in the powerful healing energy of nature.

Mindfulness Activities

You can learn mindfulness-themed exercise styles like yoga and martial arts early in life. When you are at a young age, you can reap the benefits for decades. Though some martial arts may wear on the joints over time, it’s easy to make adapt the practice to meet the needs of the age. It’s also possible to switch to something like tai chi if necessary.

Over the past twenty years, RTC treatment centers for teens around the country have incorporated mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBCT) into their treatment programs. In fact, mindfulness is an integral part of a therapeutic approach called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which uses mindfulness to teach teens how to ‘walk the middle path’ when dealing with challenging emotions, behaviors, and patterns of thought.

To learn more about mindfulness in mental health treatment for adolescents, please read our articles here:

Teens in Treatment: What is Mindfulness and Why Should I Care?

Moment-by-Moment Recovery: Integrating Mindfulness-Based Intervention into Addiction Treatment

How do Adolescent DBT Programs Help Depressed and Anxious Teens?

It’s Never Too Late to Start

There’s another element of the new CDC guidelines for exercise and activity we haven’t mentioned yet. Unlike the guidelines presented in 2008, which outline the optimal time and duration of various types of activity and exercise that lead to the most robust health benefits, the new guidelines make some very important points that our sedentary population needs – really, really, needs – to hear and understand. Here’s what they go out of their way to make clear:

  • Some physical activity is better than none.
  • Physical activity can be safe for almost everyone – even people with disabilities and chronic health conditions
  • Inactive people should choose types of physical activity that are appropriate for their current fitness level and health goals.
  • Inactive people should start easy and go slow. They should begin with lower intensity activities and gradually increase their frequency, length, and intensity over time.
  • Teens who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity will gain some health benefits.

Teens in treatment really, really need to read and understand these points. Mental health and addiction disorders can take them away from a healthy physical life and lead to an inactive and sedentary lifestyle quite quickly. What the CDC tells us is that if teens are inactive, they need to find a way to get active. They advise that any activity is better than none. Any time spent doing a moderate-to-vigorous activity – rather than sitting – will lead to health benefits.

That’s good advice, and it’s what we tell our adolescents in RTC programs every day. Start where you are, do what you can, and increase the amount and intensity of your activity over time. Gradually, exercise and activity will become a healthy habit. Before too long, you’ll wonder how you ever made it through the day without it.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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