There’s a growing health problem among adolescents, one I’ve decided to call “Busy Kid Syndrome.” It’s exactly what it sounds like — when kids’ schedules get so busy with schoolwork and extracurricular activities that they neglect their health.
It looks something like this: A 16-year-old boy stays up late doing homework for his advanced classes and finally falls asleep around 1 a.m. The next morning, he wakes up late for school and skips breakfast. After school, he has a club meeting and then soccer practice. After that, he heads to his part-time job, stopping by a fast food restaurant for dinner on the way. After he gets home from work, he starts his homework and the cycle repeats itself.
It’s a dangerous pattern. As an adolescent medicine physician, I see it all the time.
So much to do, so little time
There are 24 hours in a day, but when you actually break down the average teenager’s schedule, it doesn’t leave much free time. It’s recommended that adolescents get nine to 10 hours of sleep, although less than 10 percent of teens meet this mark, and about eight hours a day are spent at school.
That leaves seven hours for breakfast, dinner, homework, chores, work and extracurricular activities. Seven hours sounds like a lot, but when you factor in time spent commuting, personal hygiene and socializing, there’s not much time left at all.
Too often, I see kids skipping meals or skimping on sleep because they have “Busy Kid Syndrome.” Being so busy certainly takes a toll on their physical and mental health.
When I urge my adolescent patients and their families to take better care of themselves, I remind them that I am thinking about their health now and in the future.
Adolescence is generally the age of greatest physical health, so most kids will be able to function and “get by” with less than optimal nutrition and sleep. However, if the pattern is not broken, it will catch up with them at some point. The habits they create during this time will likely continue as they become adults and can lead to heart disease, obesity, malnutrition and mental health problems.
Furthermore, adolescence is the time when the brain has its second “growth spurt.” This time of brain development is focused on developing social habits and skills, and improving decision-making, in addition to acquiring new information. The brain needs adequate sleep for this growth to happen in a healthy way.
Make time for your health
I encourage my adolescent patients, and their parents, to make time for healthy eating and healthy living.
I use the word “make” purposely. People always think they will “find” the time to be healthy, but that rarely works. Most of us will end up having that time swallowed up by other obligations and activities.
I use the word “make” purposely. People always think they will “find” the time to be healthy, but that rarely works.
I tell my patients and their parents to set aside 20-30 minutes in the morning for breakfast and about 30 minutes for dinner. For those who would like to, or need to, build in more time for physical activity to improve their health, I suggest they start with 15 minutes a day.
By setting aside small chunks of time, it’s more likely these new habits will stick.
Weigh the “opportunity cost”
For some, this will mean giving up something else — a shift at work, a practice, a club or officer role, an advanced class. I know this can be a hard choice, but I remind my adolescent patients to look at the “opportunity cost.”
Is one advanced class more important than their health? Than time with family? Is the money from an after school job more valuable than a good night’s sleep? Than a healthy diet?
Most of our lives will be spent working, meeting deadlines and fulfilling obligations. We are continually learning more about the negative health effects of stress, anxiety, overwork and lack of sleep.
While it is very important for young people to learn to meet their responsibilities, it is equally important for them to learn to prioritize their health. When they learn to make time for their wellbeing early on, they create healthy habits that will serve them for a lifetime.
Besides, adolescents aren’t adults yet. They need a chance to be kids, to hang out with friends and to figure out who they want to be without the pressure and stress of an overbooked schedule.