One of the most polarizing subjects in the current American political climate is universal healthcare (aka the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare). From barbershop talk to talking heads, our national orientation toward the way we care for the collective health of our nation is a polarizing topic.
Ironically, we spend more time arguing about universal healthcare than we do promoting preventative measures to maintain the health of our nation. This is particularly concerning considering that a long list of physical ailments (Type II Diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc.) that would only have been seen in adults a generation ago are now not uncommon among today’s youth. Physical activity levels have declined so much so that many healthcare providers have begun to prescribe exercise. For example, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has developed an initiative called Exercise is Medicine.
In light of this, the importance of promoting physical activity among adolescents cannot be overstated. Individuals who engage in and develop an affinity for physical activity at a young age are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors throughout their lifespan. Taken seriously, a culture shift toward physical activity among our nation’s youth harnesses the potential to make effective strides toward increasing positive health outcomes and decreasing healthcare cost - presuming that a more physically active nation would rely less upon healthcare. Aside from monetary savings, physical activity among adolescents has benefits across multiple domains.
In academic settings, research supports that even a short bout of physical activity can bolster educational performances by increasing attention span and blood flow to the brain. Considered by some as the “the pill not taken” (McKenzie & Lounsbery, 2009), studies have also shown that decreasing the time for recess and physical education (yes, teenagers need recess too) does not yield better results on standardized tests. Done correctly physical education can actually have positive effects on mathematic and literacy achievement for students with and without disabilities- schools like those in Naperville, Illinois are prime examples.
Joy for the Non-athlete
Unfortunately, school time allocated for physical education and recess has diminished significantly across the nation. In the state of Texas, this is of great concern because, like many other states, beginning in secondary school many students can opt out of physical education if they participate in extracurricular activities (i.e. athletics). While athletics is often synonymous with physical activity, physical activity does not have to be synonymous with sport. Given that opportunities for physical activity in school settings primarily emphasize athletics, schools and the broader community have an opportunity to serve adolescents who are not interested in sport. Such programs have potential benefits beyond physical health.
A recent Canadian study found that inactive adolescents are twice as likely to consider themselves as having suboptimal health. The same study found that inactive adolescent girls had 30% greater odds of reporting suboptimal mental health. Similarly, all participants in the study who exceeded two hours of screen time (TV, iPad, cell phone) had 30-50% greater odds of self-reporting suboptimal mental health (Herman, Hopman, & Sabiston, 2016). Aside from this study, others have indicated that physical activity programs for adolescents can have a positive impact on mental health, especially those targeting obesity (Brown, Pearson, Braithwaite, Brown & Biddle, 2013).
In addition to mental health, programs that foster physical activity among adolescents can provide positive social experiences for children going through that “awkward” phase of life. Typical sport performance puts failure on display. If you are a teenager interested in playing flag football but cannot catch, the fear of everyone seeing you drop the ball might prevent you from participating. The fear of participation is heightened if you are considered an uncoordinated, overweight adolescents with a low self-esteem. Fortunately, programs like Marathon High attract willing participants because their friends are also partaking in physical activity. This program trains 6th-12th graders to complete their first half and full marathons. In a program like this the carrot for the teens and preteens is not necessarily the physical exertion, but the opportunity to socialize with peers afterschool.
The promotion of physical activity among our nation’s adolescents is an essential component of maintaining the collective health of our population. While political jargon surrounding universal healthcare remains a divisive topic, most would agree that preventative measures including, but not limited to, physical activity are an effective strategy to cut the long-term costs of healthcare. More important than savings, is the joy associated with the mental health benefits of physical activity. Physical activity can change more than just how we look; it can change how we feel. If we wish to create a healthier, happier, and more educated future for our children, we must create amenable cultures at the local, state, and national levels that promote physical activity.
1. Brown, H. E., Pearson, N., Braithwaite, R. E., Brown, W. J., & Biddle, S. J. (2013). Physical activity interventions and depression in children and adolescents. Sports medicine, 43(3), 195-206. Herman, 2. K. M., Hopman, W. M., & Sabiston, C. M. (2015). Physical activity, screen time and self-rated health and mental health in Canadian adolescents. Preventive medicine, 73, 112-116.
Langston Clark is an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio in the department of Kinesiology, Health and Nutrition. Langston completed his Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in Physical Education Teacher Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Prior to obtaining his Ph.D., he received his M.A. in Adapted Physical Education from The Ohio State University and a B.S. in Physical Education from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T).