THE DISTURBING and dramatic trend downward in Americans' health has serious implications for our future. While health is not on most college and universities' short list of academic priorities, we need to change that.
We are overweight and unfit, youths and adults alike. According to national health studies, the percentage of young people who are overweight has more than tripled since 1980. One-third of US teens are physically unfit. Recent estimates by the American College Health Association say that three out of every 10 college students are overweight or obese, often bringing with them hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and high cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
There is powerful evidence that the increase in obesity is spawning a generation prone to serious health problems later in life. The illnesses that lie in wait for unfit young people as they move through adulthood will cost them, their families, and our national healthcare system dearly.
Organizations whose mission is good health have begun a full frontal assault on the problem, with creative prevention programs, advertising, and public awareness. But leaders of colleges and universities, whose job it is to turn out graduates with the knowledge and skills to lead full, active, and productive lives, have largely been silent.
Colleges and universities are in a unique position to help, and become active partners in reversing the trend of unhealthy living. The research is irrefutable that healthy bodies improve learning. Colleges have been working on aspects of health for a long time. But we can do so much more.
The circumstances are ideal. Students attend college during highly formative years; they go through enormous personal changes and growth, testing and choosing who they are and who they want to be. Colleges can and should be incubators for young adults for good health practices, educating and motivating students about the best choices for a healthy "mind and body" lifestyle to benefit them and their future families.
Where and when would colleges fit health into their curriculums?
Creative programs can be infused into the curriculum and student life initiatives. Colleges can build into their curriculums healthy-living education programs that are smart, interesting, and taught by top faculty to engage students in analyzing health and science issues, and lifestyle and cultural implications. Widen the net through collegewide events, networking, and collaborative discussions with students, faculty, and staff. Help sponsor or encourage students to sponsor health, nutrition, and fitness fairs and campaigns that engage the entire college community.
In the Health Education Program at Simmons College, for example, students learn lifetime strategies around nutrition and healthy eating, exercise, sleep, stress, time management, self esteem, not smoking, responsible drinking, and preventive health. Part of residence hall orientation is "living healthy as a college student."
The peer education program at Simmons trains students to be active listeners, provide referrals, and organize programs that feature specialists in a variety of topics around healthy living. Because of their value, the number of student peer health educators at Simmons has grown from five a few years ago to 50 today.
Colleges can model choices. They can devote more resources to educating students about the health consequences of the choices they make in such areas as nutrition, fitness and sports, sleep, and drugs and alcohol, and then give them access to the best choices.
Some colleges have begun providing pieces of this approach. They offer greater varieties of healthful and attractive food, flexible food service hours, opportunities to eat smaller nutritious meals at odd times, midnight breakfasts, cultural foods, salad-bar choices, running-to-class food, and healthful food for seasonal or campus-wide celebrations such as the Super Bowl. Some of these changes have happened only because students asked for them.
Colleges that are leaders in the field also are providing easy, free access to nutritional counseling, full access to fitness facilities, and strong intramural sports programs.
Institutions of higher education need to join forces with others at the national, policy-making, and local levels to lead a campaign for better health. And colleges need to devote resources in their own areas of responsibility, to design a holistic approach to educating students that recognizes the importance and interdependence of the mind and the body.
Through individual and combined efforts, many more college students could earn a 4.0 in healthy living.
Susan C. Scrimshaw is president of Simmons College and a member of the governing council of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.