Is physical health linked to better learning?

by Tracey Burns
Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Mahatma Gandhi once said: "it is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver". And indeed, our physical well-being is key to how we live our lives. But while we don't always make the link between our minds and our bodies, physical health is important for learning, too. 

Children who exercise regularly, have good nutrition and sleep well are more likely to attend school, and do well at school. And the benefits are not just for children: good physical health is associated with enhanced quality of life, increased productivity in the workplace and increased participation in the community and society. 

However, children and young people across the OECD are not engaging enough in the behaviours they need to be healthy. Between 2000 to 2016, PISA data show that children and young people were less likely to reach the minimum recommended daily physical activity levels (>60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily). They were also less likely to get enough quality sleep, and more likely to be overweight and obese and have poor dietary habits (including increasing overconsumption of soft drinks, sweets, salty snacks and fast food). 

These trends are extremely concerning. Unhealthy lifestyle behaviours are associated with higher rates of cardiovascular diseases and type II diabetes, and while historically considered to be diseases of adulthood, these are now evident in children as young as two years old. 

Education is uniquely placed to positively influence the health of students. A newly published paper on recent trends has identified two of the most effective types of school-based interventions:
  • Building a healthy school environment: this includes educational interventions, health promotion, counselling and management strategies to promote health and physical fitness. These approaches need to include the whole-school community. Interventions associated with the play environment need to evolve and develop with children and young people as they grow. Building a supportive school culture is also key to effective, sustained behaviour change. For this to work, teachers need supportive school leaders and adequate training, time and resources.
  • Changing attitudes towards risky behaviour: for example, universal school-based interventions for preventing drug use. Interventions incorporate knowledge-focussed curricula (teaching the risks associated), social competence curricula and social norms, and usually a component of behavioural modelling. A systematic review of the literature showed that overall, interventions combining social competence and influence approaches had sustained positive benefits. Interventions that focused only on transmitting knowledge, on the other hand, had the effect of improving knowledge, but did not affect behaviour.
In addition to school-based interventions, supporting, encouraging, and modelling healthy lifestyle behaviours in the home environment and in the community are also crucial. In fact, even the best school-based interventions benefit from the involvement of other actors, such as health care practitioners and family and community members. 

The report highlighted that interventions that involve the community, target several behaviours, use multiple behaviour change strategies are most effective. Involving stakeholders in the design and implementation and using technology where appropriate can also help change the behaviour of children and adolescents. This is especially important for disadvantaged communities, because not only is there a greater likelihood to engage in risky lifestyle behaviours in these settings, there is also a higher probability for reduced access to services (due to high cost, location, or lack of transportation), including safe facilities for physical activity such as green spaces. 

Educators, parents and communities and policy makers all have an important role to play in supporting the physical health and well-being of children and adolescents. By working together to embed health in education, we can make a big step in supporting the wealth that is physical health and well-being of children and adolescents in OECD countries.

Photo credit: @Shutterstock 


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