When students are taught effective ways to control their emotions, solve problems and set goals, they’re more likely to be physically and mentally healthier than students who aren’t given those tools.
Those findings are included in a study published online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The study compared two 15-week high school health education programs. A traditional program called Healthy Teens taught health topics relevant to teenagers, such as road safety, infectious diseases and skin care. A second program— known as the COPE (Creating Opportunities for Personal Empowerment) Healthy Lifestyles (TEEN) Thinking, Emotions, Exercise, Nutrition Program (or just COPE)—focused on preventing obesity, as well as improving social skills and mental health.
“Nutrition and physical activity-based interventions are often tested when it comes to preventing obesity, but mental and psychosocial health can also be contributing factors,” said Patricia A. Grady, PhD, director of the National Institute of Nursing Research, a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that supported the study. “This [study] highlights the importance of an evidence-based lifestyle intervention that addresses the complex interplay of these factors.”
According to background information in the study, 32 percent of American youth are either overweight or obese. Obese teens are at higher risk for poor school performance, depression, anxiety and stress than their non-obese peers.
Students enrolled in COPE learned how to control their emotions and behavior, build self-esteem using techniques borrowed from cognitive behavioral therapy (such as changing the ways they thought about themselves), cope with stress, and set goals and overcome barriers that may crop up. They learned nutritional skills as well. The program also included 20 minutes of supervised physical activity.
The study involved a total of 779 students ages 14 to 16 from 11 different high schools in the Southwest. Students were randomly assigned to COPE or the less-intensive Healthy Teens program.
Researchers assessed the students’ health twice: immediately after their program ended and again six months later. Pedometers given to all the students at the start of the study were checked for total number of steps. The students’ weight was measured, and each teen filled out a questionnaire meant to assess their mental, physical and social health.
Among the findings:
- COPE students were much more physically active. Their mean pedometer reading was 13,681 steps per day, compared to a mean of 9,619 for those in the Healthy Teens program.
- COPE students had a slightly lower mean body mass index (a measurement of body fat) at 24.57, compared to 24.77 for Healthy Teens students.
- COPE students scored higher on a social skills rating system, and they earned higher grades in their health program.
- COPE students had much lower levels of alcohol use—13 percent versus 20 percent for Healthy Teens students.
Differences between the groups persisted after six months. Among other things, the number of overweight teens decreased in the COPE group but increased in those enrolled in Healthy Teens.
The study’s results suggest that a program that combines health education with teaching kids how to build behavioral and coping skills may be an effective way to prevent and treat obesity in teens, according to the NIH.