Health class must step up its game

With the Centers for Disease Control reporting that in 2011 only 31 percent of high schoolers attended physical education class daily, it seems to be a pretty common sentiment that physical and health education classes are a poorly executed joke.

While the classes have the potential to be the first exposure high schoolers have to epidemiology and biochemistry, and to really capture their interest in their own well-being, the classes have become reduced to lectures on eating healthy because it’s good for you and not drinking or doing drugs because it’s bad for you. This is a lost golden opportunity to expose students to what health really means: maintaining homeostasis.

Many of the leading diseases Americans face today, namely diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol and chronic lung and heart disease, are preventable. But rather than listing statistics off or preaching the healthy life to listless adolescents, the classroom could stand to be livened up a little. Language classes have culture, food and music going for them – I still know all the words to Jesse y Joy’s “Volvere” from Spanish sophomore year – but recall nothing from health class other than a really cool substitute who once told us about working in Zimbabwe.

Why not discuss things that are relevant to today’s population at large? The Michigan Merit Curriculum for Health Education has organized the critical health content areas as nutrition and physical activity; alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs; safety; social and emotional health; personal health and wellness; HIV prevention and sexuality education.

But to quote the curriculum, “Each year approximately three million cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) occur among teenagers, and one in four Michigan high school students report having consumed ?ve or more drinks in a row during the previous month.”

Clearly, the information isn’t getting passed on very well.
The amazing thing about science though is that there is always an explanation and a way to communicate it clearly. Bill Nye and Ms. Frizzle are two fantastic examples. The necessary information can still be covered while explaining why it is that the information is so important.

Nutrition goes above and beyond serving sizes and calorie intake per day. It’s all about balance. While the food pyramid might be a helpful tool, an overview of the Kreb’s cycle for how our bodies utilize carbs and fats is much more effective at explaining the importance of eating healthy. Also, it doesn’t hurt that there’s an awesome remix of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” to help learn the cycle.

The Kreb’s cycle would also help emphasize the importance of exercise, as it occurs within the mitochondria, and these cellular powerhouses increase in number the more you exercise. This is one reason for the sense of revitalization that people talk about when discussing being physically active.

This line of teaching would address myths like the diet version of a product is better and that supplements and weight loss schemes actually work.

Instead of just teaching abstinence or teaching students how to use condoms, it would also be beneficial to explain about sexual health in real terms – every person you sleep with, you sleep with everyone they’ve slept with. That makes for a pretty crazy graph and a much more heightened awareness of the ease at which STIs can be passed on.

Beyond being exposed to the fields of biology and chemistry in a much more applicable way than before, there would be a heightened awareness in adolescents’ sense of self and ownership of their actions.

After all, if explaining how saturated fats and trans fats pack together tightly into plaques and lead to cardiovascular diseases doesn’t put the issue of eating a healthy, balanced diet in perspective, I’m not sure what will.

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