Student Well-Being Opinion

The Role of Health and Wellness in the Classroom

By Tom Segal — October 11, 2012 8 min read
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The education of our children should constitute far more than the teaching of geometry or Shakespearean poetry--social and wellness and critical life skills are equally important to the success of our students (and the economy) as are traditional classroom courses. While teaching STEM curricula to a generation of children may increase the potential of the top line, we must be aware of the power that things like nutritional education can have on the bottom line.

Most would agree that our national healthcare budget has gotten out of control, and is a major factor currently crippling our road to economic recovery. Yet the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 75% of the total $2.5 trillion in national healthcare spending is on people with chronic, and in most cases preventable, conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Much of the national discussion on our budgetary concerns has focused on the healthcare system and what to do about rising costs. Complex systems and public and private insurance programs are scrutinized and vociferously debated ad nauseum, and yet all that seems to be discussed is different methods of “who foots the bill?” politics. There never seems to be an answer because this is simply the wrong question. If Americans just took newfound individual and collective responsibility for their own health, lifestyle, and wellbeing, the oncoming healthcare disaster could be averted.

Certainly the individual holds much responsibility for this development, but the system is equally accountable. Americans spend more than double what Germans, Canadians, English, and French pay per year on healthcare, and yet their average lifespan is increasingly shorter. When diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure, many Americans take pills and continue an unhealthy lifestyle rather than simply eating less and exercising more. Obese citizens with failing knee and hip joints will undergo replacement surgeries rather than simply lose weight, which often fixes the problem. Study after study has shown a direct link between a person’s level of education and their overall level of health, and not because of their access to better healthcare, but because of their likelihood to not need healthcare.

America’s most glaring enemies are currently its own citizens. If the Department of Defense were truly in the market of national security, it would be aggressively financing wellness education throughout the country. The incidents of 9/11 and related attacks claimed the lives of a few thousand, and the United States has since dedicated multiple trillions of dollars in funding wars aimed at preventing such attacks from ever happening again (with varying opinions of success, no less). Yet preventable complications due to obesity claim the lives of millions of citizens a year, and the DoD is nowhere to be found. This is not just a problem of the individual; it is a persistently flawed, narrow-minded outlook by the collective population that poisons the function of our systemic society.

And the problem is only getting worse. According to the American Government’s own figures, healthcare costs will grow at just over 6% per year over the next 10 years, significantly faster than GDP (closer to 2%), and will hit $4.5 trillion per year within the decade. With a bit of arithmetic, we can surmise that this ten-year stretch will lead to an increase in healthcare spending of nearly $10 trillion. That is roughly two thirds the size of our current total national deficit. This undoubtedly gives reason to panic.

More than one-third of American adults (35.7%) are obese, and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents are obese. Given the prevalence and borderline epidemic of obesity plaguing the United States, it is easy to forget that being so unhealthy is truly unnatural. It is easy to live a healthy lifestyle. Mankind has managed to keep its collective waistline slim since, well, forever. Obesity is a rare phenomenon in the world’s history, and even throughout most of the modern world, both rich and poor alike.

The CDC estimates that over two thirds of the population is at least overweight. The clearest, easiest, most logical, and by far cheapest solution to our collective medical bill is simply getting people to live what for the vast majority of man’s existence has been considered a normal way of life. So maybe it might be worth teaching some of this in school. Just maybe.

The problem of health and wellness extends far beyond the reaches of just the national healthcare crisis. An unhealthy workforce is unhappier, more stressed, and far less likely to reach their potential for productivity both in and out of the workplace. They are also less likely to partake in civic activities like community service projects or tutoring at their local school--lost opportunities at increasing collective production. Each increment of measurable potential we fail to realize in the present is exponentially negated in the future. It is easy to see how, in the long run, the issue of individual health and wellness deeply affects the nation as a whole, including those individuals maintaining their health. As such, it is everyone’s responsibility to quell the looming threat.

As Jim Clifton ascertains in his book, The Coming Jobs War, “there is no single act of leadership that has bigger money implications than simply doubling the number of fit Americans. Or look at it this way: Significantly reducing the percentage of obese Americans would save multiple times more taxpayer money than pulling all United States troops out of both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Although physical health is the most glaring hole in the overall wellness of our country, there are various other topics not traditionally taught in the classroom that have major consequences on our economy, and as such need to be addressed in a very real way.

Social wellness and the practice of bullying are more than just talking points at a PTA meeting; they have a significant impact on the education of our children. The dawn of social media has only exacerbated the issue, as kids today find themselves in a world of unparalleled access and social freedom, and parents and teachers struggle to grasp the complexity of the situation. Online tools for communication now evolve faster than school districts can keep up with, and the kids themselves often have a better understanding of the technologies at play than the adults in charge of supervising them. While incidences like the shootings at Columbine High or Virginia Tech are often looked at as the byproduct of the bully/outcast culture, suicide has quietly become the leading cause of death in teenagers, a fact that is almost unimaginable. While most students will not resort to such measures as a means of escaping their social fears, plenty of students will suffer in less quantifiable ways. Millions of students report feeling more unsafe in school than out of school--how can this possibly lend itself to an efficient education? Social wellness should be viewed as being as pertinent to a child’s education and potential for success as access to computers and team sports because, frankly, it is. If we can’t teach our children the tangible consequences of bullying and promote a safer environment for learning, we are directly restraining their potential for passion and discovery, and with it our own economic potential as a nation.

Other critical life skills in need of drastic rescaling of exposure include such topics as financial literacy and drug abuse. Though many factors played a role in the collapse of the global economy in the past few years, perhaps none had as great an impact as millions of citizens living beyond their financial means, borrowing money at rates they couldn’t pay back and buying homes at prices they couldn’t afford. Financial literacy, like the aforementioned physical wellbeing, is a practice that is reasonably simple and should be easily solved. In a society so linked to the banking system, there is no excuse for not teaching every student at least the basics of financial literacy. How is our lending environment supposed to spur economic progress if its customers, those who actually put the money to use, have limited to no concept of the financial system’s mechanisms?

Beyond the obvious failings of our collective financial literacy on the banking system in general is how financial illiteracy (as well as drug abuse) effects education. The top two reasons given by college dropouts for why they discontinued their education are financial shortcomings and drug abuse. We already struggle to graduate 70% of our high school students: when we do get young men and women to continue into higher education, we simply cannot afford to lose them for reasons so within our control.

And this financial literacy dilemma carries weight far past a student’s graduation date. The collective national student debt bill recently crossed the $1 trillion threshold, roughly 7% the size of the entire United States national debt. We need to educate our young children on the financial decisions they will face before they reach college in order to preserve their monetary standing after they have graduated. Financial calculations and payment schedules are decisions that will stay with a student and affect the rest of their lives; it is simply irresponsible and irrational for the nation as a whole to allow these decisions to be made without first educating these students with the proper background information.

We must educate our way to a better economy. This means not simply rethinking how we teach, but what we teach, and why. Just as a student needs the physical infrastructure of roads, schools, and computers before they can efficiently learn, so too does a student need the emotional and social infrastructure of health, wellness, and safety. We cannot simply ignore this reality any longer.

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The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.