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OPINION: Teen Health Starts at School and Home

By: Meilan Solly

It’s a well-known fact that America has seen a growing obesity trend over the last few decades, with obesity rates among adolescents and children almost tripling since 1980. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the number of teenagers (ages 12-19) who are overweight or obese reached 18%, or in numbers 12.5 million, in 2008.

Comparatively, only 5% of adolescents were considered overweight or obese in 1980. Obesity can lead to many problems, ranging from low self-esteem to high risk for cardiovascular diseases. It is important, therefore, to encourage better teen health both at home and at school.
Obesity, which is defined as “having excess body fat” according to the CDC, varies from being overweight, which is concerned more with weight than fat. Both conditions are caused by several factors: mainly overeating, lack of physical exercise, and junk food. While some instances of obesity are caused by physical problems rather than bad habits, most cases are preventable. So, whose job is it to encourage better teen health? Public schools, or home? The answer is both.
Schools try to do their part in fostering healthy living habits by offering extracurricular sports and physical education classes. They also offer fairly nutritious school lunches, although it is true that one study of 1,000 middle schoolers found that students who ate school lunches on an everyday basis were 29% more likely to be obese than those who packed their own lunches. This is one fact which should change soon, however, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on several lunch reforms such as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which provides for maximum calorie limits and larger vegetable portions. School lunches may be one of the government’s main focuses when it comes to encouraging better health in schools, but they should focus more on teaching nutrition and promoting physical education.

While schools do offer many exercise options, they don’t always teach healthy living habits. Health class, which is offered in conjunction with Physical Education, does teach students a few tips, but what many schools really need is an active health program. Some public schools already have health coordinators, who the American Cancer Society explains are people who are “trained professionals in school health who will help the school district work to improve the programs and policies that can impact the health of its students and faculty.” The role of health coordinators and health programs in schools must be expanded in order to teach teenagers nutrition and lifestyle habits that will hopefully keep them from growing obese and unhealthy as adults.

Besides encouraging teen health at school, parents must foster healthy habits at home. Home is, usually, the place where students spend the most time aside from school, and it is here that they can really indulge in unhealthy habits like eating junk food and sitting around on the couch. Improving lifestyle habits is not just the task of parents or schools, of course. Teenagers themselves have to choose to change their habits or else they will never learn. Parents and teens must work together to implement changes like buying healthier food, exercising on a daily basis, and limiting television and computer time.

In the end, improving teen health comes down to teens. They are the ones these choices will affect, either negatively or, hopefully, positively. Changing the way one goes about daily life can be a daunting task, but by slowly making simple changes like going for a run or eating a salad instead of macaroni and cheese, it is easy to become healthy, fit, and an overall improved person.

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