Inspiring Youth to Take Action on their Health

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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youth health issuesGuest Post By: Peter Berg

From physical health issues, such as obesity and diabetes, to mental health issues, such as ADD and depression, what today’s young people are facing can conservatively be considered a crisis. In a previous article I pointed out some staggering youth health statistics and shared a few strategies aimed at empowering youth to reduce these numbers.

In my work at Youth Transformations, I am often asked about ways to inspire youth to take action for their health. In my opinion, this has many layers and is often tied down by misconceptions and misinformation.

While there is no denying the alarming youth health statistics, there are many misconceptions related to these statistics, which need to be examined before we can truly address them. I offer just a few here to start the conversation.

Misconception 1: Youth Don’t Care About their Health

This is perhaps the most damaging of all the misconceptions. Sure, we can probably all remember when we were young and point to examples of youth today indulging in eating ‘junk food’ and some other not-so-healthy behaviors; this, however, does not mean youth do not care about their health.

In fact, many youth use the Internet and media to research health topics, especially those that are important to them, such as reproductive and sexual health. What seems to happen is that adults want young people to care about the health topics they feel are important (this can certainly be well-meaning and important).

When youth don’t change their behavior or understand why they should or how they could, adults often take this as a sign that they don’t care about their health. This is not the case, as youth care a great deal about their health when it makes sense to them.

Misconception 2: Youth Don’t Want to Change

Change is perhaps one of the most difficult of all life’s challenges for any group of people. We all get into our set ways and routines, and this is not always a detriment to health, as healthy routines have a positive effect on our health.

Youth, like any group of people, are probably going to be a bit resistant to change at first. In my experience, youth can be a lot more flexible when it comes to change, and once they have a chance to try out the change, they take to it more readily and sustainably than adults. The change needs to make sense to them. They need to know why they are doing it, how it is going to help them now and how to implement the change in a way that best lines up within their life.

Young people will make changes when they know how, why and when it makes sense within their lives.

Misconception 3: Youth are Lazy

I can’t tell you how often I hear adults lament about how lazy ‘today’s youth’ are and how, even when they know what they should be doing and how do to it, they won’t do it because they are too lazy.
Yet, approximately 35 million young people, ages 5 to 18, are involved in organized sports, 10 million in after school activities and 10 million in summer camps. Of course, statistics alone do not tell the whole story, but this at least gives some insight into what youth are up to and to the fact that they aren’t lazy.

We don’t need statistics to tell us that young people’s days are often highly scheduled, running from one activity to another. In fact, I would argue that young people are overscheduled and do not have enough down time or time for reflection.

Youth are not lazy, and if there is any shred of youth laziness, perhaps we need to examine our adult culture and how sedentary in mind, body and spirit some adults have become.

If we can address these misconceptions honestly, it will go long way in inspiring youth to take action for their health. It is difficult to feel inspired when misconceptions abound to the point where they create barriers to youth taking action for their health.

I offer the following three tips, in no particular order, to help inspire youth to take action for their health:

1. Use Examples.

We are all familiar with the axiom “lead by example”. It is important for adults to lead by example when it comes to taking action for their health. If youth see that adults are engaged and are dedicated to leading healthy lifestyles, then it has a positive influence on their engagement. Taking the idea of using examples a bit further, using examples of other youth taking action for their health is important.

The more relevant it is to the youth’s individual context, the better. I find using ‘local’ examples to be highly effective. When young people have concrete examples of their peers taking action for their health, the idea comes alive and shows them that it is possible. This also tends to create an emotional connection, which has been shown to inspire young people to take action. Besides providing a source of inspiration, showcasing an example(s) can also provide good resources and perhaps even new relationships.

2. Exploration.

Supporting youth in their exploration of health issues, in many instances, can form the basis for inspiration. When youth are supported in their explorations of issues that affect them, they often are inspired to take action. While exploring various health topics ,youth need to be given the freedom to delve as deeply as they want to.

Far too frequently youth are cut off from uncovering the many layers of the issues that they are exploring, which results in their enthusiasm for taking action and/or their reason for wanting to do so being squashed. Sometimes adults are afraid of letting youth explore health issues for fear that they may uncover something ‘inappropriate’ or ‘controversial’. While this an understandable and real concern, I suggest that this be approached with caution. We don’t want to keep information from youth, especially if it is relevant to the issue.

3. Working with Interests.

As with most sources of inspiration, it comes from something inside us, from our interests and what is important to us.Using youth involvement in organized sports as an example, most youth who participate in sports want to perform as well as they possibly can. Take, for instance, how eating whole foods impacts performance. As youth want to perform at their best, they would likely want to have the best quality food available to them. This can lead youth in many different directions and courses of action. Working with interests can be a powerful inroad for youth to take action for their health.

Youth will take action for their health if they have the right inspiration and means to do so. If we are willing to honestly explore the misconceptions we have about youth and their health and support their exploration of health topics that are based on their interests, relevant to their lives and grounded in concrete examples, youth will be more likely to take action for their health.

Peter Berg is the founder of Youth Transformations and Education Transformation.org, is a board certified holistic health and mental health coach, a teacher, educational administrator, community organizer, educational consultant, school developer, national trainer and an expert in and an advocate for alternative and integrated education. He has written extensively on alternative, holistic, integrated educational theory and techniques and has founded and co-founded non-profit community and environmental-based organizations. Contact him at peter@youthtransformations.com or by visiting his Youth Transformations Fan Page on Facebook for more information. Be sure to visit Peter’s Youth Transformations and Education Transformation websites for more information on his coaching programs for youth ages 10 to 19 and information on alternative and integrated education.

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