The health and wellbeing of a nation is at stake. Our current education system does not properly help students learn or practice the three elements that lead to a physically healthy life. The system even prevents it in a few different ways. Most people can guess the first two elements: Fitness and Nutrition. However, the third remains largely a mystery, yet it is just as important as the other two. Do you know what it is?
Let’s take a look at each in turn:
The top two killers in the U.S, heart disease and diabetes, are preventable diseases caused by diet. However, most don't know how to accomplish a healthy diet. Not all Physicians receive nutrition training, yet proper nutrition is preventative medicine. As is stated in a Journal of Biomedical Education article “poor nutrition contributes to the development of most chronic diseases and even some acute conditions. The ongoing obesity epidemic demands urgent attention from physicians.” However, “physicians in the US are largely on their own when it comes to learning how to look for signs of nutrition problems, how to explain the significance of nutrition-related conditions and appropriate interventions, and how to refer patients to nutrition professionals.” A Chinese proverb says “The superior doctor prevents sickness. The mediocre doctor attends to impending sickness. The inferior doctor treats actual sickness.” But, as Holly Tse points out, this proverb makes it easy to blame the doctor when you get sick. We can and should take our health into our own hands. We could be teaching our children how to care for themselves by understanding proper nutrition.
In addition to teaching kids about preventative medicine with proper nutrition, we need to make sure their physical needs are met, as well. What Tom Rath named "sitting disease" is being inactive for more than 6 hours per day. Doing so greatly increases premature death. A Mayo Clinic study showed that sitting is just as bad as smoking when it comes to heart disease. Another study showed that inactivity kills as many people worldwide as does smoking. And yet another study found that even if you exercise a lot, perhaps one hour a day, it may still not be enough to counteract the bad effects of extended periods of sitting. If you spend most of your time sitting you are at greater risk of death from any cause. One needs to be moving all day. Knowing this, just imagine the impact our current school structure has on our kids' bodies. Most of our students spend their days sitting at a desk.
Angela Hanscom, an occupational therapist, writes about her recent visit to a middle school. Her intention was to sit still and pay attention just as we expect students to do. After what she describes as an excruciating 90 minutes she found that even she couldn’t keep from fidgeting. She knew there was no way she could tolerate this for 6 hours let alone every day. She explains “Their bodies aren’t designed for extended periods of sitting. In fact, none of our bodies are made to stay sedentary for lengths of time. This lack of movement and unrelenting sitting routine are wreaking havoc on their bodies and minds. Bodies start to succumb to these unnatural positions and sedentary lifestyle through atrophy of the muscles, tightness of ligaments (where there shouldn’t be tightness), and underdeveloped sensory systems – setting them up for weak bodies, poor posturing, and inefficient sensory processing of the world around them.” But what struck me the most was the fact that the same school had converted snack time to a working snack time, recess has been lost due to the fear of children getting injured, and physical education had been reduced to once every 6th day! There are weeks the children go with no physical education at all! Why are we doing this to children? Unfortunately, I have met some that would suggest the teachers are clueless about the need for children to move, but that is simply not the case. They are actually quite frustrated with the situation. A number of teachers explained to Angela, “we are expected to cram more and more information down their throats.” “It is insane! We can no longer teach according to what we feel is developmentally appropriate.” “Due to the high-stakes testing, even project-based learning opportunities are no longer feasible. Too many regulations, not enough time.” Just imagine the long term effects this will have on our children. Not only should we prioritize teaching our students about fitness, we also need to keep them moving throughout their days.
While food and fitness are a huge part of being healthy, it doesn't stop there. Sleep also plays a vital role in our health and wellbeing. For a large number of the population, less than 7-9 hours of sleep will result in sleep deprivation. Being sleep deprived is equivalent to being drunk on the road. You are less likely to be satisfied with your job if you are sleep deprived . And your immune system is likely to suffer. Studies have also found that children need more sleep than adults and also tend to do better at different times of the day. While young children tend to wake early, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explains that beginning at puberty, kids’ sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later. Not only is it hard for them to get up in the morning, it’s tough for them to get to sleep before 11:00 at night. A poll by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) found 59 percent of 6th through 8th graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8½ to 9½ hours of sleep on school nights. As a matter of fact I myself worked with a number of high schools that started their days at 7am. I understand that school start times were staggered to prevent too much traffic and possibly even to reuse busses. However, starting at 7 am for high school students should simply be unacceptable. In an earlier article I published I showed that a lack of play is related to depression, anxiety, and even suicide. It is interesting, then, to find that studies have shown the same to be true of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is such a concern in the U.S. that the CDC has gone so far as to call it an "important public health concern" and multiple other studies have even called it an epidemic.
The health and wellbeing of a nation is at stake because of the way we structure our school system. We need to redesign the system to support and aid students in receiving the sleep that they need, as well as helping them to understand physical and nutritional health at all ages. While the logistics of accommodating for child and adolescent sleep patterns is something that will require quite a consideration, physical and nutritional education could easily be incorporated into education even now.
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Emma B Perez