Health Education Provides Mixed Messages

Is it possible that America’s schools are responsible for most of the country’s health problems?

Yes, these institutions of education–from the K-12 staples to universities, colleges, and trade schools–are preoccupied with messages of health, knowledge and success. But as every parent can attest, children are particularly attuned to the gap between word and deed.

In schools, millions of kids are peppered with advice about eating fruits and veggies, getting enough sleep, and avoiding the ubiquitous junk food. Then they are shuffled through cash-strapped cafeterias relying on deep fryers and sugary, fattening condiments to make frozen convenience foods palatable; athletic programs conspire with snack food retailers, gaining equipment in exchange for brand messaging and vending machines in the hallways. The nutritional guidelines individuals and institutions are supposed to follow end up being just that: guidelines, loose to the point of irrelevance.

The nutritional contradiction plaguing the nation’s schools is well known. But the mixed messages go further than diet, and set a destructive pattern that plays out over a lifetime.

School is Practice for an Unhealthy Life

Schools are the first place many children learn to sacrifice sleep. It is a conventional source of bragging rights, shared among the athletic and the poindextrous alike. Hours of rest and recovery, sacrificed in the name of study and scholarship or rehearsal and training, are exchanged as though they constitute accomplishment in and of themselves. And as common as the willfully sleepless trend is among students of all ages, it is also a quintessential element in the story of the starving artist, tortured genius, or serial entrepreneur. Again, experts can warn against the dangers of sleeplessness or critique the claims, but the cultural norm and social pressure is to treat sleep as expendable.

Never mind that fitness is the key to performance in academic endeavors as well as athletics; deprivation of sleep and a diet hinged on cost and convenience make for a more compelling personal narrative. America is obsessed with underdogs, and so has crafted a culture where we all set ourselves up for failure by neglecting the pillars of our personal health.

Poor diet and sleep habits, of course, correlate with one another: weight loss without proper sleep is nearly impossible, and poor diet can contribute to insomnia. This is well known. Also broadly understood is that the triad of diet, sleep, and exercise is implicated in virtually all of the leading causes of death and chronic illness in the United States.

Poor Young Bodies, Poor Young Minds

It is not a particularly long or winding road, therefore, from the habits of study, socialization, and personal neglect students learn to adopt in school, and the leading public health crises in the world today. And although our culture has done its level best to segregate mental health from physical wellness, the connection is clear: when our bodies fall into disrepair, our minds are likely close behind, if not leading the decline.

Schools are a training ground for lifestyle: extracurriculars go a long way in identity formation, and habits developed early on only become harder to change later. The neuroplasticity of young children in the K-12 years means it is the most critical time of all in terms of setting precedents of health. It is one thing for career-minded adults to sacrifice health and happiness in pursuit of security or advancement, but ingraining those choices as a matter of status and routine in school dooms children to duplicate that pattern in their own adult lives.

Teachers, parents, professionals, and celebrities are all setting the same example, and students are nothing if not impressionable.

They Have to Learn It Somewhere

Learning has a tendency to happen in spite of instruction, as well as in its absence. The passive instruction that drives students to skimp on sleep and compromise heavily on diet is an early life experience that will stick with them like an addiction well into adulthood.

We can’t take for granted that posters promoting apples and carrots will enter student minds by osmosis and ingrain a strong sense of what food is supposed to be–especially in the face of a contradictory message about what food is, presented by cafeterias, vending machines, and student dependence on energy drinks to survive the school day.

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