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The Importance of the Other Fitness for your child or teenager

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Health Sleep = Health Kids

Everyone with children wants to help them grow into fit and healthy adults.

But what do you think of when you hear the word ‘fitness’?

Is it the quiet of the early morning as you lace your shoes up for a jog? Or maybe it’s the feeling of sweat on your brow, or the ache in your legs, or the rise in your heart rate. Perhaps it’s a dull feeling of guilt or a lingering sense of obligation – you know that you should stay active, but it’s so difficult to carve out the time in a world of uncertainty, change, and activity.

There are many good reasons to encourage your children to stay – or get – physically fit. For many Australian children and teenagers, staying fit will have as positive an impact on their health as all the pharmacist medicines in the world.

But that’s not what I want you to think about now.

Instead, think about the other fitness.

Sleep fitness.

Why children and teenagers need sleep

We all know from experience the impact of sleeplessness and fatigue on our lives. We can practically feel our brain struggle forward like a rowboat heading out to see against an incoming tide. Our responses – physical, mental, and emotional – become subdued, distant, and sometimes frankly inappropriate.

If you have children, you’re probably even more aware of the impact of sleep on behaviour, attitude, and actions.

In young people, lack of adequate sleep can:

  • Negatively impact their growth and development
  • Lead to mental health conditions; Dr. Evans-Whipp from the Australian Institute of Family Studies Director says that a ‘much greater proportions of adolescents across all age groups who rated themselves as ‘not happy’ compared to ‘happy’ did not meet the minimum sleep guidelines.’[1]
  • Limit their academic outcomes and make it difficult to concentrate in school
  • Develop into serious sleep disorders that disrupt normal life in a significant manner
  • Build poor sleep habits that can increase the likelihood of developing significant conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Teenagers and sleep in Australia

When it comes to teenagers and sleep in Australia, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

Here’s the good news: nearly all Australian 6-7 year olds get the sleep that they need.

Here’s the bad news: a quarter of 12-13 year olds and half of 16-17 do not receive the minimum amount of sleep each night.[2] 12-13 year olds need 9 to 11 hours of sleep; teenagers aged 14 to 17 need between eight and ten hours of sleep.[3]

Your child or teenager might not be getting enough sleep each night if they:

  • Fall asleep easily during the day
  • Show signs of sleep problems such as sleepwalking, bed wetting, teeth grinding, or vivid nightmares
  • Complain about tiredness and fatigue during the day
  • Go to bed very late or have to wake very early

Enhancing sleep fitness

It can be helpful to think of healthy sleep patterns as sleep fitness. The word ‘fitness’ communicates that a person can be out of practice or out of shape when it comes to sleep. It also suggests that it is possible to shape up. Of course, some Australian children and teenagers have sleep disorders; to treat these, speak with your doctor. In such cases, pharmacist medicines may play an important role in managing sleep difficulties.

For many children and teenagers, simply implementing the following steps can help you to promote sleep fitness in your teenager or child.

  1. Know the recommended sleep times, the need for sleep, and the effects of inadequate sleep. Francis Bacon – the Renaissance scientist, politician, and philosopher – once said, ‘Knowledge is power.’ When it comes to sleep, this is entirely true. Familiarise yourself the recommended minimum sleep guidelines for children and teenagers, and with the evidence that shows the damage done by inadequate sleep. Communicate this with your child. Make it clear that promoting sleep fitness is not an arbitrary decision you have made: it is backed up by research and science.
  2. Provide your children with a cool, dark, quiet room. We sleep best when the conditions are just right. As much as possible, create a cool, dark, and quiet space for your child or teenager to sleep in. I know that this is not always possible; some of us live on busy roads, lack adequate space, or have houses that naturally run warm, especially in summer.
  3. Set a sleep routine with a clear bedtime. The studies are clear: bedtimes set by parents improve sleep quantity and quality.[4] While it is acceptable to involve your children and teenagers in the decision-making process, you should have clear and relatively inflexible bedtimes, especially for school nights. On the weekend, when young people tend to sleep less, it is still helpful to have unambiguous guidelines to protect the sleep of your children.
  4. Remove internet access from their rooms. Here’s an idea: make your children’s room a Tech-Free Zone. Will your kids like that? No. Will that get used to it? Yes. Admittedly, it is not clear whether young Australians use the internet because they can’t sleep, or whether young Australians find it hard to sleep because of excessive internet use. Whichever it is, the numbers don’t lie: over a quarter of young Australians with internet access in their rooms don’t get enough sleep.[5] A variety of online resources can help you limit your children’s internet time and put restrictions on when they can and can’t access it.
  5. Sign them up for community sport. Australian young people involved in sport are more likely than other children and teenagers to get enough sleep.[6] Why is this the case? At the most basic level, studies have shown that regular exercise improves sleep quality.[7] Involvement in sport = involvement in exercise. Sport also promotes healthy social and emotional connections; these in turn reduce stress, which makes it easier to sleep.
  6. Declutter their diary. It might feel like Point 6 clashes with Point 5! First you are told to sign your children up for community sport, and then you are told to declutter their diary. Here’s the thing: teenagers with too much on their calendar tend to get less sleep than others. On one level, that’s just common sense. But like a lot of things that feel like common sense, it is backed up by research: one reason that Australian young people get a little more sleep than American young people is that they spend less time on extra-curricular activities.[8]

Two final thoughts. Firstly, what about your sleep fitness? Young people learn by imitation. If you are not getting enough sleep, then it is likely that your children are not either. You may like to reflect on ways that you can improve your own health fitness.

Secondly, remember that while sleep fitness is a helpful concept, some sleep disorders require treatment from a doctor, who may prescribe pharmacist medicines. Please speak to your GP about these options, especially if you have significant concerns about the impact of inadequate sleep on your child or teenager’s physical or mental health.

[1] https://aifs.gov.au/media-releases/australian-teens-not-getting-enough-sleep#:~:text=Institute%20Research%20Fellow%2C%20Dr%20Tracy,and%2010%20hours%20of%20sleep.

[2] https://growingupinaustralia.gov.au/research-findings/annual-statistical-reports-2018/are-children-and-adolescents-getting-enough-sleep

[3] https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/physical-activity-and-exercise/physical-activity-and-exercise-guidelines-for-all-australians/for-children-and-young-people-5-to-17-years

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4232364/

[5] https://aifs.gov.au/media-releases/australian-teens-not-getting-enough-sleep#:~:text=Institute%20Research%20Fellow%2C%20Dr%20Tracy,and%2010%20hours%20of%20sleep.

[6] https://aifs.gov.au/media-releases/australian-teens-not-getting-enough-sleep#:~:text=Institute%20Research%20Fellow%2C%20Dr%20Tracy,and%2010%20hours%20of%20sleep.

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3716674/

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4232364/