Looking After Your Physical Health
as a Teenager

See also: Self-Care For Teenagers

Your teenage years are a time of upheaval and change. Your body is changing—it can sometimes seem like daily—and your brain is also altering. At the same time, you want, and are generally being given, more independence, even if not quite as much as you desire. You are being asked to make more decisions, do for yourself, and take on responsibility.

It is no wonder that many teenagers find this period hard. Looking after yourself may seem the least of your problems during your teenage years. However, habits built now will endure long into adulthood, so it is worth building good ones. This page discusses some of the issues that may affect your health and safety as you move through your teenage years. You may also like to read our page on Self-Care for Teenagers, which discusses how to ensure that you have time to look after your mental health and general wellbeing, by doing things that make you happy.

Puberty: Body Changes and Health

Both your body and mind change during puberty and adolescence. These physical and mental changes may require some changes to your behaviour to enable you to stay safe and healthy.

  • You will sweat more—and it will smell.

    There is no nice way to put this. You will sweat, and it will smell.

    You are likely to need to shower or bath every day, especially if you do any sport or exercise. You will also need to use deodorant every day.

  • Your emotions will be more intense during adolescence.

    You will feel everything a lot more strongly for a few years: happiness, sadness, and everything in between.

    This is completely normal, even if it can feel a bit challenging at times. It will also pass eventually.

    Try not to judge your parents too much because you think they don’t understand or appreciate what you’re going through. They do understand, because they too went through it—but now they are older and calmer.

  • You will be more prone to risk-taking—so try to apply logic before doing anything ‘stupid’

    Your brain and neural system change during adolescence. This happens in two important ways that may affect your health and safety.

    First, your prefrontal cortex is ‘rewired’. This is the area of your brain responsible for planning and risk assessment, and therefore this process affects your ability to judge risk and plan carefully. Second, myelin is being added to your neurones, which speeds up the messages passing along your nerves.

    This means that you genuinely need more excitement during adolescence, because of the changing way that your body is interpreting information. However, at the same time, you are less able to judge whether a particular activity is ‘too risky’.

    Try to take time to consider the possible consequences of your/your friend’s latest idea before simply embarking on it. It could save your life.

  • Your body clock changes, and you need more sleep

    Teenagers generally need more sleep than adults—and they also prefer to sleep later in the morning. Unfortunately for most teenagers, however, schools and workplaces do not function from 11am to 7pm. Instead, they require your attendance, and your attention, from 8.45am or even earlier.

    You therefore need to develop good sleep habits to ensure that you can manage this.

    Most of the evidence suggests that setting your body clock is a matter of nurture (or habit) not nature. Yes, you would like to stay up later, and wake up later—but you can train your body to wake earlier. Our page on The Importance of Sleep provides some advice for improving your ‘sleep hygiene’ to help you to sleep.

    Our pages on Understanding Adolescence and Understanding Puberty may be helpful in understanding the changes that your mind and body are going through. These pages are part of our parenting section, and therefore not aimed directly at you. However, they do contain information that may help you.

Sex, Relationships and Health

As you move through puberty, you will almost inevitably become more interested in sex and relationships. You may be exploring your sexuality and gender identity, or simply seeking new experiences.

You will undoubtedly find other people who are similarly interested in exploring, and helping you to explore. This is, generally speaking, a good thing.

However, there are some issues that you need to consider. These include:

  • Consent, coercion and control

    One of the biggest issues for teenagers is understanding about consent.

    This is an essential area to understand, because getting it wrong could lead to you trying to rape someone or being raped—and that is definitely not good for either of you.

    Obviously if someone says no, then that’s what they mean. They could later change their mind—but you shouldn’t nag them and nag them in the hope that they will do so. That is stepping into the zone of coercion: where they feel forced to do what you want, so that you will stop nagging.

    It’s wrong. Don’t do it.

    And yes, it does count as nagging if you say things like “If you loved me, you would”.

    Equally, it’s OK for either of you to change your minds at any time. Just because you wanted it before doesn’t mean you want it now. And if that happens, it is NOT OK to be cross or annoyed, or to feel like you’re owed something.

    Similarly, you are not ‘owed’ sex if you take someone out for a drink or a meal. Actually, you’re never owed sex by anyone, because that’s not how sex and relationships work.

    Consent and tea

    If you’re finding it hard to understand some of the concepts around consent, or you’re not sure you have properly understood, you may find it helpful to watch this video about consent, and how it’s easy when you think of it as like making someone a cup of tea.

  • Sex as part of a relationship

    Many teenagers see sex as an abstract: a thing that they want, because they want to lose their virginity, or because they think that everyone around them is ‘doing it’. This leads to a focus on casual sex or hook-ups—and this can downgrade the value of sex as a part of a relationship.

    Instead, it is important to see sex as being an essential part of a loving relationship, not as a transaction.

    Generally speaking, the best sex is between two people in this kind of relationship, where both of you care about each other. It brings you closer, and is part of the glue that binds the relationship—and it gets better over time. It is (genuinely) worth holding out for this kind of relationship, not jumping into bed with anyone at the first opportunity.

    A Word About Porn

    By the time you are in your teens, statistics show that you will most likely have seen pornography at some point. Indeed, many teenagers report getting a lot of their information about sex from pornography.

    This is unfortunate, for several reasons.

    First, porn tends to objectify women. It therefore gives a very unrealistic idea of sex and relationships. Contrary to what you might believe having watched porn, most women don’t want to be hit, slapped or hurt during sex, and forcing someone is not sexy, it’s rape.

    Second, there is evidence that when you watch porn often, you become desensitised. It takes longer to become turned on, and to get pleasure from real-life sex.

    Nobody is saying that porn is always enormously damaging. However, it isn’t real, and it can have harmful effects, and you need to be aware of that.

  • Contraception and sexually transmitted diseases

    Contraception is something that everyone who is having sex needs to consider.

    Yes, the girl or woman is left ‘holding the baby’ if she becomes pregnant. However, boys and men cannot run away from their part of the responsibility. In many countries, there are agencies that will pursue absent fathers for child support.

    The bottom line is that if you are not ready to have a baby, make sure you (jointly) take precautions.

    For boys, that means using condoms, which will also protect you against sexually transmitted diseases. You can also ask questions about whether your girlfriend is using the Pill or other hormonal contraception. However, you should not try to coerce her into using hormonal contraception, because it carries a risk of stroke and other problems that she may not wish to take. Some people also cannot use the Pill for various reasons.

    For girls, it means being prepared to use condoms (including buying them if necessary—don’t rely on your boyfriend to do that) and considering using hormonal contraception if that suits you. Don’t be coerced into using hormonal contraception if that doesn’t feel right for you.

    Remember: condoms will protect you from sexually transmitted diseases as well as guard against pregnancy. They are a really good first line of contraception.

Alcohol and Drugs

Your teenage years are a time when you or your friends and peers may start to experiment with mood-altering substances. These may be legal, for example, alcohol, or illegal (most drugs).

There is little doubt that teenagers have been experimenting with harmful or illicit substances for many years. However, there is also little doubt that there are serious consequences to do so, and not just legal (see box).

Know Your (Legal) Limits!

It is important to know the law in relation to any substances that you may be tempted to try.

For example, are you legally allowed to consume/use those substances in your country?

Is your use constrained by age?

For example, in the UK, it is legal for 18 year olds to buy and consume alcohol. In the US, it is not legal until the age of 21.

These limits are in place to protect you, not make your life difficult. There are reasons why you might want to avoid certain drugs, or limit your intake of alcohol while your brain is still developing.

There are also different consequences when you do something that is against the law. It’s worth knowing what might land you with a criminal record.

The health consequences of misusing alcohol and other substances are severe. During adolescence, your brain is still developing, and extensive use of mind-altering substances can cause long-term damage.

Generally speaking, as our page on Alcohol and Health makes clear, there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption. Regular and heavy drinking are both extremely bad for you. Binge drinking (drinking four or more units of alcohol in one session for women, or five or more for men) is also bad news.

Alcohol causes problems with health (and these are set out in our page on Alcohol and Health).

However, it also causes you to lose your inhibitions. For young men and women, this will mean that you are more likely to engage in risky behaviours such as fighting, having unprotected sex, or getting into a car with someone who has been drinking. These can have serious consequences, from pregnancy, through sexually transmitted diseases, to serious injury or even death.

Before you go out drinking, ask yourself if the consequences are really worth it.

Illegal drugs are generally slightly harder to come by than alcohol, but not impossible. It may be very tempting to try something to give your night a boost.

This is a temptation best avoided.

The effects of many drugs are far more severe than is popularly supposed, and a bad reaction can happen to anyone.

Worse, many drugs available on the streets have been adulterated to increase the profit to dealers. You therefore have NO IDEA what exactly you are consuming, or its likely effect.

It is difficult to ‘JUST SAY NO!’, as the 1980s anti-drugs campaign suggested, especially when ‘peer pressure’ is involved. However, the long-term consequences mean that it is worth doing.

You may find it helpful to read our page on Peer Resistance Skills if you are finding it hard to resist peer pressure.

Remember: You Are Not Alone!

As you move through your teenage years, you are becoming more independent.

This is something you want; it’s also something that your parents and other adults around you will be encouraging.

However, it doesn’t mean that you have to manage everything alone.

Your parents, teachers, youth leaders, and other adults are all good sources of help, if you need it. They have been through adolescence themselves, and many of them also have a lot of experience of helping young people.

If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it. Help is always available—but only if you ask.

A key skill in adulthood is knowing when to ask for help. It is worth starting to develop that skill now.

Help from outside

If you don’t feel that you have anyone you can ask for help, because there are no trusted adults in your life, many countries and charities provide anonymous helplines or online chat options. These are staffed by volunteers or staff who are trained in how to respond to people who need help. They will not judge you, and they will help you to find the help you need.

In the UK, these include:

  • SHOUT (text ‘SHOUT’ to 85258) for anyone struggling to cope.
  • Childline (call 0800 1111), for help and advice for young people of all ages.
  • FRANK (call 0300 123 6600, text 82111 or visit talktofrank.com) for advice about drugs.
  • Samaritans (call 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org or visit samaritans.org) for support or to talk/text to someone at any time.

If you prefer to talk to someone your own age, you can use Teenage Helpline, where trained ‘peer mentors’ will talk to you about anything that’s bothering you (teenagehelpline.org.uk).